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The Perils And False Rewards Of Parenting In The Era Of 'Digi-Discipline'

Social media postings showing parents "disciplining" their children, including (from left) LaToya Graham, <a href="https://www.facebook.com/reshondatbillingsley" data-hovercard="/ajax/hovercard/user.php?id=100003122127065" data-hovercard-prefer-more-content-show="1">ReShonda Tate Billingsley</a> and Tavis Sellers, went viral.
ABC 2 News WMAR; ReShonda Tate Billingsley; Tavis Sellers/Screenshots by NPR
Social media postings showing parents "disciplining" their children, including (from left) LaToya Graham, ReShonda Tate Billingsley and Tavis Sellers, went viral.

The videos are an infamous genre unto themselves: "Mother Punches Her Daughter Dead in the Face for Having Sex in the House!" "Dad Whups Daughter for Dressing Like Beyonce." "Son Left In Bloody Mess as Father Forces Him to 'Fight.'" Their images stream from Facebook timelines and across YouTube channels, alternately horrifying and arresting: burly fathers, angry mothers, lips curled, curses flying, hands wrapped around electrical chords, tree branches, belts, slashing down on legs, arms, buttocks and flesh as children cry and plead and scream out in agony.

Tens of millions have clicked "play," becoming voyeurs of this new form of child punishment — what some observers call "digi-discipline."

Rather than sticking to the time-honored tradition of physically disciplining their children behind closed doors, parents, many of them black, buoyed by the instant gratification and viral fame that social media provides, are increasingly uploading videos of the corporal punishment they mete out on their kids, sparking intense debate on the usefulness of this particular form of public shaming.

The videos' comments threads reveal where most viewers stand on the issue: the digital whoops, hollers and high-fives rival those heard at championship boxing matches, with a majority of commenters encouraging the beatings and applauding the parents. "Whup that trick," one commenter wrote. "Beat that THOT wannabe's ass," said another, using the slur du jour for "slut." Yet another chimed in with "Good job .. now this is a father i salute him because if my daughter was doing this id whoop her ass too."

The running theme: It's OK to beat children, and, if the millions of views each video garners tell the story, it's acceptable to post tapings of the beatings on social media for feedback and "likes."

Tameka Harris-James, an Atlanta-based licensed clinical social worker whose practice includes working with victims of family trauma, said "digi-discipline" has become a new "community experience" that lays bare generations of trauma corporal punishment has wreaked on African-Americans. Viewers, perhaps triggered by their own abuse, repeat the cycle of abuse by hitting their children or applauding those who publicly do so, rather than acquiring the language and skills they need to deal with their own trauma.

"When you have a group of people coming from the same population and circumstances who live by the same social rules and norms that say it's OK to beat children, you don't talk about problems or go to therapy and get the help you need from those kinds of cathartic outlets," Harris-James said. "Instead, you watch these videos and collectively join in and bond over the pain."

Corporal punishment is universally accepted by a large swath of American parents; a 2014 study by Child Trends, a research organization that uses data to help shape public policy on children, reveals that 65 percent of women and 76 percent of men agree or strongly agree that it is sometimes necessary to give a child a "good hard spanking." But when broken down by race, black parents — particularly black mothers — are far more likely to agree that kids need beatings: 81 percent of black mothers, compared with 62 percent each of Hispanic and white mothers, advocate hard spanking, while 80 percent of black fathers felt the same, compared to 76 percent and 73 percent of white and Hispanic fathers respectively.

Among blacks, commiserating over corporal punishment is nothing new; before social media, parents would recount in conversations at the hair salon, barbershop, church, family gatherings or more intimate phone conversations the beatings they handed out for childhood infractions. Anti-corporal punishment advocate Stacey Patton, author of Spare the Kids: Why Whupping Children Won't Save Black America, said in the past, "It would be, 'girl, I tore her butt up for leaving this house without asking.'" Today, she said, digital technology, social media and video-sharing sites "allow that conversation to become much more public and widespread. It makes parents feel more powerful."

Patton notes that in a society where black people have limited political, economic and social power, one place they can both exercise authority and strike back at stereotypes that portray black parents as irresponsible and unloving is taking "control" of their kids. Beating children and posting it on social media, then, is just as much about performing respectability as it is punishing wrongdoing. "Rather than striking back at oppressive systems that justify beating and shaming your kids, you beat and shame your kids. You can say, 'I'm a responsible parent. I don't let my kids run wild.'"

In some cases, those parents are rewarded when their videos go viral. LaToya Graham was crowned "mom of the year" after being captured on tape smacking her son upside his head, yelling at him and chasing him down the street for participating in a Baltimore protest over the police killing of Freddie Gray. The video, filmed by a local TV news station, shot past 8 million views on YouTube after it aired on television and Baltimore Police Commissioner Anthony Batts shouted out Graham, saying he wished "there were more parents out there who took charge of their kids." Within weeks, Graham enjoyed a media whirlwind of praise, appearing on several popular news and talk shows, getting job offers from BET, Under Armour and a local hospital, and even receiving a phone call and a $15,000 check from Oprah.

Social media amplified the significance — and reward — of Graham's actions, which led to an uptick in digi-discipline videos, said Patton. "Her success gave validation to other parents that this was OK," she said.

But not everyone gets rewarded for such public discipline. In the case of Virginia father Tavis Sellers, boxing his son on Facebook Live as punishment for leaving class earned the dad a domestic assault and battery charge after his video went viral. In it, Sellers orders his son to put on boxing gloves and fight him; the father bests the son, tossing jabs that make the boy's nose bleed. As he continues to beat him, Sellers chides the boy, telling both him and the viewing audience that when he "cuts up in school, this is what [he] has to deal with when [he] comes home." By the video's end, the boy's white t-shirt is covered with blood; his father demands he look in the camera and apologize to his teacher.

Sellers was arrested a few days later.

Patton, whose outspoken advocacy teaches positive, non-violent disciplinary practices to parents of color, has even called police to report parents who've uploaded videos of themselves beating their children, and encouraged her more than 44,000 Facebook followers to do the same. "People say, 'That's [expletive] up. Another black man in jail, another black child in foster care — you need to mind your business.' I'm like, 'This person put their business in the fiber optic streets and it's our job as human beings to protect this kid.'"

Parents, she adds, need to spend less time posting digi-punishment videos and more time actually learning how to parent their children. "What they're beating their kids over — bad report cards, cutting class, sexual behavior — is all developmental stuff. Sit down and have a conversation with them about healthy sexual choices. All that time they spent charging their phones, setting up the cameras, explaining why they're about to beat the mess out of their kids, filming the abuse, uploading it on YouTube, captioning it and tagging their friends, they could have Googled 'How to talk to my daughter about sex.'"

Still, some parents find great value in digi-punishment — as a deterrent for their children and a lesson for mothers and fathers parenting in the digital age. "I would do it all over again," says author ReShonda Tate Billingsley, who set off a storm of controversy in 2012 when she punished her daughter for posting an Instagram photo of herself holding up a bottle of Vodka and saying she wished she could drink it. Billingsley countered with a photo of her own: a picture of her crying daughter holding a sign that read, "Since I want to take pics holding liquor, I am obviously NOT ready for social media and will be taking a hiatus until I learn what is and isn't appropriate to post. Bye-Bye." The photo, which she posted on her Facebook page, was shared more than 10,000 times hours after it went public.

"It resonated with her and to this day, she still thinks about that. They live on social media and that's always in the back of her mind," says Billingsley, adding that the picture inspired parents to pay attention to what their children post on social media. Still, the mom of three believes that beating children on camera goes "way too far." These days, parents, she said, "are doing it for likes and shares."

Patton plans to lobby for legislation that would make it a crime to post videos and pictures of children getting beaten — and adds that she believes the only reason it hasn't been introduced and passed already is because the videos predominately feature black children. "This is a country that's become numb to the destruction of black bodies. Whether it's Toya Graham beating her son, or Tamir Rice being shot by cops, it's OK — we've become accustomed to watching it. If these were white children in these degrading videos, something would have been done a long time ago."

Harris-James thinks a bit differently about this.

"Parents will continue to beat their children and there should be consequences for that," she says quietly. "But if we shut it down, it takes our attention off of it and we forget about those children. At least now, the videos stimulate dialogue and conversation and action because it's in your face."

is a New York Times best-selling author and a parenting expert, whose latest book is My Brown Baby: On the Joys and Challenges Of Raising African American Children. Follow her @MyBrownBaby.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: April 6, 2017 at 11:00 PM CDT
An earlier version of this story inverted the percentages of women and men who support hard spankings as 76 and 65. The correct percentages are 65 for women and 76 for men.