Two studies released yesterday paint a bleak picture of American childhood: One estimated, based on parents' own reports, that more than three million children are physically abused each year in the name of discipline, and the other, a poll of young people, found that 40 percent of girls ages 14 to 17 said they had a friend their own age who had been hit or beaten by a boyfriend.
The poll on child discipline, conducted by the Gallup Organization in August and September, asked a representative sample of 1,000 parents nationwide how they handle a child who misbehaves.
If the poll results were projected to the entire population, it would mean that almost 5 percent of parents punish their children by punching, kicking or throwing the child down, or hitting the child with a hard object on some part of the body other than the hTC bottom.
Those acts were classified as abusive in the study, while punishments like spanking, slapping, shouting, cursing or threatening to send a child away were not.
The Gallup poll also found that 1.3 million children a year were sexually abused. The poll did not ask parents whether they had sexually abused their children, but rather whether, as far as they knew, their children had been forced to have sex with an adult or older child, had been forcibly touched sexually by an adult or older child, or had been forced to touch an adult or older child sexually.
The Gallup estimates of both physical and sexual abuse are far higher than the federal government's official statistics. The National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect's 1993 report, the most recent available, said that more than 200,000 children were victims of physical abuse -- one-sixteenth what the Gallup poll projects.
According to the government statistics, 130,000 children are victims of sexual abuse, one-tenth the Gallup numbers.
"The reason for the disparity is that the federal data represent only those cases reported to public agencies, investigated and confirmed," said Anne Cohn Donnelly, the executive director of the National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse, a private group in Chicago.
There is no single definition of abuse. For example, Ms. Donnelly said, in Illinois it would be abusive to rap a child on the knuckles with a fork; in Florida it would not be abusive if the bruises dissipated in three days.
As high as the Gallup numbers are, they probably understate the problem, said George H. Gallup Jr., co-chairman of the Gallup Organization. "Our data are based on self-reporting, and some people probably did not report everything," he said. "In itself, the fact that so many parents were willing to admit using severe physical punishment shows something about social attitudes."
Both physical and sexual abuse were reported three times more often in single-parent families than in two-parent families.
Generally, mothers reported abusing their children more than fathers.
The Gallup poll had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points, as did the second study released yesterday, commissioned by Children Now, an Oakland, Calif., children's advocacy group, and Kaiser Permanente, a health-care company.
The second study used 1,000 telephone interviews with children ages 11 to 17 and 120 in-person interviews with children ages 7 to 10 to explore a wide range of threats to children's health and safety. Perhaps the most surprising finding was the frequency with which teen-age girls reported having friends who had been hit or beaten by boyfriends.