Parents, stop publicly shaming your kids on the Internet

We know that humiliating people on the Internet is abusive, so why are we letting parents do it?

Note: This article discusses themes of suicide and child abuse.

Last weekend, 13-year-old Isabel Laxamana committed suicide in Tacoma, Washington. The teen appeared to be struggling with depression and bullying at school, and troublingly, she was publicly shamed in a YouTube video posted by her father just days before she died, which likely compounded her feelings of isolation. Laxamana’s father chose to film himself cutting off her hair as a punishment—in a video that was deeply humiliating and uncomfortable. It’s since been taken down.

The Internet is asking whether the video led to her death, and while it’s impossible to determine the motivations behind individual suicides, one thing is certain: More and more parents are using the Internet to shame their children, and it’s not OK. The trend is becoming such an issue that all of us—parents, Internet users, and everyone else—need to have a larger conversation about how to handle this form of child abuse, because humiliating children in public to punish them is absolutely a form of abuse.

Just last month, Valerie Sparks shamed her 13-year-old for lying about her age on her Facebook profile. Her video, which included shots of her daughter sobbing, was watched by millions of viewers, many of whom praised her for protecting her daughter from predators. Others, though, were less impressed, arguing that public shaming wasn’t the best tool to address the problem.

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Another parent engaged in similar behavior when he humiliated his 10-year-old with a video revealing her real age, while forcing her to wear a hideous shirt and backpack as a punishment. His intention may have been to address her behavior on social media, but it primarily acted to shame her.  

Monitoring the activities of minors online is a bit of a controversial issue, but Sparks was right when she spoke to the need to protect vulnerable minors from predators. The Internet includes a lot of terrible people, and parents do have an obligation to keep their children safe. Publishing humiliating videos to mock their children, however, is likely not the best way to do that. If anything, they’re likely to make children push back harder.

In 2013, father Scott Mackintosh attempted to humiliate his daughter over the way she dressed by cutting down a pair of daisy dukes and parading around in them online. Her parents felt her outfit was “slutty” and not modest enough, but their plan for shaming her backfired: She posted a mocking photo of her father’s outfit on Tumblr, in a post that garnered thousands of responses.

Three years ago, a father on Reddit posted a picture of his toddler wearing a sign about an accident in the shower, a truly bizarre act of social shaming that will likely haunt his daughter for life. Three-year-olds don’t always have perfect bowel control, and while the circumstances of the situation weren’t clear, humiliating her by posting her picture online was, again, not the best way to resolve the problem. Disapproving parents chimed in with comments pointing out that cleaning up poop is simply one of the joys of parenting.

Suffice it to say that humiliating children for offenses both perceived and real is a growing online trend.

Parenting is challenging, and one of the most difficult aspects can involve balancing the safety of children in an era when human relationships, and the dangers therein, are evolving very rapidly. Children who misrepresent themselves or overshare on social media, for example, can be putting themselves at risk for harm. However, the Internet provides a new platform for punishments as old as time, like poor marks in school, staying out after curfew, and other violations of household law continues apace.

As technology evolves, so do conversations about discipline. Children used to be caned without comment, for example, but such an act would be identified as child abuse today. 

As technology evolves, so do conversations about discipline. Children used to be caned without comment, for example, but such an act would be identified as child abuse today. Spanking is no longer commonplace and parents who engage in it are often criticized. Notably, though, the United States is not one of the countries in which corporal punishment of children is categorically illegal. Screaming at children also isn’t considered acceptable.

But parents who force their children to carry around giant signs spelling out their crimes or who do things like ranting at them on video, cutting off their hair in front of an audience of millions, vandalizing social media accounts, and more are treated rather differently. While some express concerns about the emotional consequences and appropriateness of these kinds of punishments, many more are praising them, and failing to recognize them as the child abuse that they are.

Humiliating children in any setting isn’t just an ineffective method of punishment that’s bound to create psychological problems in the future. It’s also deeply wrong. Whether a child is meekly sitting in a YouTube video while her father berates her for an unknown transgression or standing on a street corner with a sign shaming her for twerking, shame is not the answer.

And in the case of children who are already experiencing depression, anxiety, or bullying, the results can be fatal. Minors, especially teens, can be unspeakably cruel, and such videos can become fodder for further mocking and taunting. When they come with an added seal of parental approval, that only adds to the problem.

Fortunately, not all parents are thinking this way, and some are actively speaking out against the trend. Florida father Wayman Greshman just posted a video upending the trope in which he poses with his son, holding a pair of clippers and threatening to shave his head—before ordering his son to stand up and give him a hug. “Good parenting,” Greshman says, “is about letting your child know you love them.”

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He argues that parents have a responsibility to identify problem behavior and intervene by supporting their children to head it off at the pass, rather than subjecting them to public humiliation. His outspoken protest against the meme could strike a chord, forcing a bigger conversation on shaming videos and their damaging effects.

Clearly, though, criticizing parents who post these videos isn’t enough, even when that criticism comes from other parents. The sites where they’re hosted need to start taking proactive steps to address the problem, just as many have pledged to do with bullying, abuse, doxing, and other Internet problems. A system for flagging and fast tracking review of videos of this nature needs to be in place, and they need to be identified as the abuse they are.

Parents need to be receiving unequivocal messages from video hosting services that their content is being removed because it constitutes child abuse, not just that a video is “inappropriate” or “violates terms of service.” And in cases where a video is clearly being filmed in the context of an abusive household, as was the case with the father who shot his daughter’s laptop in 2012, child protective services need to be dispatched to investigate.

Child abuse in virtual space is every bit as much of a problem as physical or emotional abuse in physical space, and the fight for the safety and welfare of children isn’t just about protecting them from predators and cyberbullies. Sometimes, the bullies are their own parents.

For more information about suicide prevention or to speak with someone confidentially, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (U.S.) or Samaritans (U.K.).

S.E. Smith is a writer, editor, and agitator with numerous publication credits, including the Guardian, AlterNet, and Salon, along with several anthologies. Smith also serves as the Social Justice Editor for xoJane and will be co-chairing Wiscon 40—the preeminent feminist science-fiction conference—in 2016.

Photo via Divine in the Daily/Flickr (CC BY ND 2.0)

S.E. Smith

S.E. Smith

s.e. smith is a Northern California-based journalist and writer focusing on social justice issues. smith's work has appeared in publications like Esquire, the Guardian, Rolling Stone, In These Times, Bitch Magazine, and Pacific Standard.