"Kids are the only people in the world we’re allowed to hit," Louis C.K. lamented in his 2010 comedy special, Hilarious. "They’re the most vulnerable, and they’re the most destroyed by being hit, but it’s totally okay to hit them." Recent years have seen increased scrutiny of child abuse — both physical violence (see: NFL running back Adrian Peterson disciplining his four-year-old son with a switch) and sexual abuse (the Duggar family will not likely be out of the news anytime soon). What has been less discussed is the emotional abuse of children. Last Friday, 13-year-old Izabel Laxamana jumped off an overpass in her hometown of Tacoma, WA just days after her father cut off her hair, took a video of her as he scolded her for some wrongdoing, and then shared the video on YouTube. Laxamana died in the hospital the next day.
The trend of punishing children with social-media shaming is growing. From the father who shot his daughter's laptop with a pistol on camera and then uploaded the video (viewed 40 million times on YouTube) to the mother who filmed herself following her daughter around school while taunting the teen for skipping class, parents are turning to the Internet to "teach their kids a lesson" for the world to see. But let's abandon the word "discipline" for a more accurate term — emotional abuse. We don't know what Laxamana's mental health was like before her father cut off "all that beautiful hair," as he calls it in the video below, which features a short-haired Laxamana responding nearly inaudibly to her father's questioning. We can't say that his bullying caused her suicide, but we can call it for what it is.
Historically, people have been reluctant to regulate how other people raise their children: We don't want to meddle in "private matters" (it wasn't until the 1970s that legislation in this country began to deal with domestic violence as more of a criminal offense than a "private matter"). But, as psychologist Peggy Drexler, PhD comments in Psychology Today, "It's important to recognize that discipline is not the same as punishment. Discipline is necessary. Punishment is not."
We struggle with that line and the physical and emotional measures we apply to children, and parents who shame their children on the Internet are crossing it. The permanence of digital embarrassment is perhaps clearer to kids than it is to the generation raising them, who may not understand the implications of humiliating someone in the online communities where they conduct so much of their lives.
But experiences on the Internet can be as impactful as those in the meatspace. We're already having that conversation in the context of young people bullying each other online, sometimes with tragic consequences; slowly, we’re recognizing that Internet trolls who threaten their targets with murder and death should be taken seriously. Cases such as Laxamana's are a reminder that social-media shaming is as "real" a form of abuse as any other.