By Laurie Sue Brockway
Boys push, hit hard, and twist arms. Girls tend to slap, choke, and yell. Regardless of the method, dating violence has become alarmingly common among adolescents, according to research presented today at the American Psychological Association's (AMA) 121st Annual Convention in Honolulu. It was revealed that about one in three American youths ages 14 to 20 say they have been victims of dating violence or have been violent toward a date -- with girls reportedly on an equal footing with boys when it comes to violent behavior.
The data is part of the yet-to-be-published Growing Up With Media study that analyzed information collected from 1,058 young people in 2011 and 2012. "These rates of adolescent dating violence are alarming and suggest that dating violence is simply too common among our youth," said researcher Michele Ybarra, PhD, MPH, with the Center for Innovative Public Health Research, based in San Clemente, Calif., in a statement issued by the APA.
The Bullying Link to Dating Abuse
A separate presentation by researchers Sabina Low, PhD, of Arizona State University, and Dorothy L. Espelage, PhD, of the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, explored the relationship between childhood bullying and teen dating. They found that children who were bulled were seven times more likely to engage in teen dating violence toward a partner.
Low and Espelage began following bullying behavior in 1,600 fifth and sixth graders almost five years ago for a study funded by the CDC and National Institute of Justice. They narrowed down an original sample group to 625 teens, surveying those youths every year for five years, following them into high school.
"We actually looked at bullying perpetration between fifth and sixth grade (10 and 11 years old) with four types of teen dating violence perpetration in high school (14 and 15 years old)," said researcher Espelage, who is a professor of educational psychology. The types of violence were:
- Verbal. Name-calling, put-downs
- Relational. Embarrassing someone in front of friends or getting your friends not to like someone, which is an isolating factor
- Physical. Choking, biting, and pushing.
- Sexual. Forcing a partner to have sex or kiss you
"Bullies remain bullies, they just change conduct," Espelage concluded, based on responses over times from the children surveyed. As they got older, some of these youths were "hitting violently," she said, noting that the study looked at unwanted violent behavior, not playful punches and smacks.
Espelage pointed out that researchers in this field fall into two distinct categories: those who believe that women are as tough and aggressive as men and as likely to abuse, and those who believe even aggressive women are more fearful than men that they will be abused again. Although they did not specifically ask about fear in their study, she said, in her 20 years of research she has found that while males and females may be equal in the number of violent acts they engage in, their feelings about the experience may be different.
"If you measure fear and severity you would find that girls are much more fearful of it happening again," she said. "When a boy hits a girl, most girls are fearful, and are more likely to be sent to the hospital because it's a severe hit than if a girl punches [a boy]. I've said that they are equally aggressive, but if we measured fear, the girls would be more fearful of the boys."
One surprise finding with both sexes was that teens tend to justify violence and conditions in which it is okay to hit your dating partner. "In fact, 25 percent of boys and girls in high school say that if they cheated on you, you should be able to hit them, and if your partner makes you jealous you should hit them. It's amazing to me!" said Espelage.
The New Culture of Dating Violence
David Sack, MD, who is board certified in psychiatry, addiction psychiatry, and addiction medicine, has dealt with dating violence issues. "The results are consistent with previous studies on dating violence among teens," he said of the new research. "We know that teens who perpetrate violence are equally likely to be victims of violence, whether in the same relationship or a future relationship."
He explained the dynamics of teen dating violence: "Dating violence often starts with emotional or psychological abuse such as teasing, threatening, or trying to control a partner's behavior or appearance, and then may escalate to physical or sexual abuse," said Dr. Sack, who is CEO of Promises Treatment Centers in Malibu and Los Angeles. "Technology, including the Internet and text messaging, has made it possible to bully and harass relationship partners even in the absence of face-to-face contact."
In adult relationships, women more frequently report abuse than men, but both males and females report abuse in the teen years, according to Sack. "The aggression in teen relationships appears to be mutual," he said. "However, there are some gender differences. There is some evidence that girls are more likely to slap, hit, kick and yell, while boys are more likely to commit types of physical or sexual abuse that cause physical and emotional injury."
Boys and girls may also have different motivations for abuse in a relationship. "Girls report engaging in dating violence in self-defense, in response to emotional pain or to show anger, while boys are more likely to use violence to control their partner or in response to getting hit first," said Sack.
Future Relationships for Kids Caught in Dating Violence
Abusive dating habits often stem from abuse witnessed and experienced in the home, evolve into teen dating violence, and then continue down the path to adult domestic violence.
"Teen dating abuse is strongly correlated with relationship problems in adulthood," said Sack. "Studies have found that teens who were in abusive relationships in adolescence were two to three times more likely to be in violent relationships as adults. They may have difficulty establishing intimacy and may be at increased risk of sex, love and romance addictions later on."
He says victims of teen dating violence may also have trouble in school, abuse drugs and alcohol, struggle with depression and antisocial behaviors, attempt suicide, become overly dependent on others, engage in disordered eating behaviors such as abusing laxatives or vomiting to lose weight, and develop a negative self-image.
"Teen Dating Violence Affects One in Three" originally appeared on Everyday Health.