THE BLOG
07/17/2015 02:49 pm ET Updated Jul 14, 2016

America's New Norm: Teen Dating Violence. What's Going on with our Teens & How We Can Better Understand Their World

Are you curious about teenagers today and dating? As the mother to boy/girl twins who just turned thirteen years old, I know I sure am, especially when I hear words like Teen Dating Violence (TDV). I mean, what does that mean exactly? Being a young person today is so incredibly different and I believe more difficult too than it was even just a decade ago...but what could possibly be going on in their world that I need to be on top of right now? Do I really need to think about dating at age 13? If you've been wondering about teens, teen dating and this issue called Teen Dating Violence. Here it is. And I hope you're sitting down.

Nearly 42 million, or over 12%, of people in the United States (population=318 million) are youth between the ages of 10-18, according to the United States Census. As of 2012, one third of young people between the ages of 14-20 in the United States have experienced Teen Dating Violence (TDV), which includes exposure to new media, such as the internet, according to a study conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and highlighted by the American Psychological Association (APA). While TDV has no socio-economic barriers and can occur at any age, according to the CDC, and a majority of the research available, age 11 is identified as the universal age these abusive acts begin to occur. AGE ELEVEN.

Every day in America, nearly one in two teenagers, or about half of all youth who are in a relationship feel they are "being threatened, pressured and/or controlled to do things they do not want to do." Approximately 72% of eighth and ninth graders are "dating" and more than half of all high school students report seeing TDV among their peers. Youth in high school (grades nine through twelve), found that of those they knew that had been in a relationship over the course of one year, 1 in 10 had encountered TDV. Similar to Adult Domestic Violence (ADV), females consistently and disproportionately represent survivors, with young women between the ages of 16-24, THREE TIMES more likely to encounter abuse. In fact, young women, between the ages of 16-20, have consistently experienced the highest rates of relationship violence, even when compared to adult women with acts classified as "severe dating violence" excessively affecting young women. Of note however, while research has indicated that females "are as likely to be a perpetrator as a victim of violence" according to the APA, there's not enough data to clarify or confirm this statistic.

Most alarming regarding this data, is that these figures are likely a bit lower than projected as only about a third of teens will tell someone about the abuse he/she is experiencing; only 6% of victims will tell a family member. The probability of reaching out for help drops even lower, to just 3% for authoritative figures. Interestingly, 75% of victims will tell a friend or peer. Research feedback shows that young men seem to have more difficulty sharing their TDV experience simply because "dating violence and abuse traditionally have been considered women's issues."

Another piece of data that might provide additional insight regarding the behavior of TDV victims is that young people, as well as parents, have been unable to identify whether a behavior is TDV behavior, abusive and/or a warning sign. While 19 states have laws that require school boards to address TDV via curriculum and Congress, in 2010, dedicated every February to "Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month" to help bring light to these complexities, TDV numbers for the past decade continue to be on the rise according to a study conducted by the Library of Congress under an Interagency Agreement with the Violence and Victimization Research Division, National Institute of Justice. Moreover, as TDV far exceeds rates of other types of youth violence, resolving these uncertainties, as well as identifying the short and long term impact(s) of TDV is becoming more dire.

Teen Dating Violence Defined, Sort Of

In a 2011 study, supported in part by the Maternal and Child Health Bureau, one of the findings affirmed that "some confusion remains regarding the definition and epidemiology of TDV." When examining the definitions of TDV provided by the foremost sources of data regarding health, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, TDV is defined "as the physical, sexual, psychological, or emotional violence within a dating relationship, including stalking. It can occur in person or electronically and might occur between a current or former dating partner" (CDC, June 2015); the National Institute of Health provides a similar definition in its literature (NIH, June 2010). The American Psychological Association cites and utilizes the CDC definition and data (APA, 2015). While these websites provide useful and similar data, all three definitions(s) omit discussion of "sexting" and use of the words "digital abuse" which the national go-to organization, Love is Respect.org, utilizes to describe abusive electronic encounters which fall under the umbrella of psychological abuse. The CDC also does not reference or utilize the word "pattern," a very important descriptive in the world of adult domestic abuse but states that "TDV can also be referred to as domestic violence and/or abuse." Lastly, there is no mention of LGBTQIA relationships.

Perhaps if these details and subtleties were addressed by the leading and aforementioned websites, there might be less confusion and less ambiguity which according to the NIH study, "has led to effective ways in which to screen and intervene when such violence is detected." As a side note, the study conducted by the CDC in 2011 and 2012 (and cited by the APA), is entitled "Growing up with the media" and focuses on the effects of violent forms of media and includes the internet, news media, television and games. It can be viewed here in detail via the Center for Innovative Public Health Research.

What's Happening to My Body? aka Adolescent Development


It is well known that adolescence, the period in which a young person exits childhood and enters young adulthood, has been characterized as innately confusing and challenging, particularly the timeframe most associated with the teenage years. In fact, 1950s theorist, Erik Erikson, in his development of the "Eight Stages of Man" not only compartmentalized the journey from adolescence into adulthood across three stages: 1)childhood to adolescence (ages 12-18), 2)young adulthood (early 20s to late 20s) and 3)adulthood (late 20s to 50s) but he also identified the first stage, which takes place during the ages of 12-18, as "the most important period" as the adolescent commits to their sense of identity and "views of self."

The predictable but dramatic physical and biological developmental changes endured by youth during this stage provide part of the explanation as to why this stage of life is more demanding. Some of these transformations via NIH are tangible and apparent such as body hair growth, menstruation for girls and change in voice and penis size for boys, while other milestones such as the change in hormones, the development of identity and independence, the thoughts and feelings regarding these changes, sexuality, as well other internalized and externalized behaviors can be complex and fall into the cognitive and social development realm which is not always as easily identified and explained.

Fortunately, research findings from the last decade regarding teen brain structure and functioning have provided greater insight regarding the sometimes impulsive and risk taking behavior of teens. The findings via Harvard conclude that the "human brain circuitry is not mature until the early 20's," and as such the emotional learning and high-level self-regulation" of teens differs greatly from that of adults as the last connections [in the teen brain] to be fully established are the links between the prefrontal cortex, seat of judgment and problem-solving. The under development of these links, also has correlations to addictive behavior. As the life of a teenager is automatically volatile just based on science, inevitable change, and hormonal changes, exposure to the trauma of TDV can only compound the health and well being of adolescents.

Teen Dating Violence & The Well Being of Our Teenagers

Data regarding TDV exposure indicates increased risk for Interpersonal Violence (IPV) in adulthood" as a collateral effect. Unlike adult IPV however, yes, both groups are dealing with the same issues EXCEPT our youth are at a disadvantage because of normal developmental delays. Teens are in a unique position compared to other age groups in that youth are not quite adults but are no longer a child and YET they are faced with situations that even adults find challenging to address affirms Breakthecycle.org (2014).

Physical traumas caused by TDV are similar to those of IPV with teens also being reluctant and afraid to share their accounts of abuse. Like IPV, physical damage varies, depending on impact and location; what has been distinguished is the role of gender. Studies have shown that young men tend to perpetrate more severe and more physical violence but suffer fewer psychological consequences and boys were much more likely than girls to report that they had been sexually violent toward a date. Young women tend to perpetrate less significant forms of physical violence and suffer more profound psychological consequences and girls were significantly more likely than boys to say they had been victims of sexual dating violence and that they had committed physical dating violence; psychological dating violence was about equal for boys and girls. Moreover, girls and boys who actively bully others, are seven times as likely to be physically violent in dating relationships, four years later according to the APA (2013).

Psychological. Adolescents exposed to TDV suffer significant short and long-term consequences. Some of the consequences include: depression, suicide, anxiety, alcohol abuse, cigarette and drug use. More than half of TDV survivors who are also raped are likely to attempt suicide. Other consequences associated with TDV include low self-esteem and academic performance, eating disorders, and other adverse mental health outcomes.

Sexuality. Research suggests that students with low academic performance are likely to engage in sexual activity. Data discloses that sex is "considered part of tween dating relationships" with nearly half of 11-14 year olds having been in a dating relationship, "an alarmingly earlier age than anticipated by parents" according to Love is Respect.org (2014). Sexual interactions can encompass a variety of detrimental physical and mental consequences, especially if a teen is pressured or "forced to have sex" (which is rape), to the unwanted posting of sexually explicit photos, to sexting to threats to "spread rumors if the partner refuses to have sex." As teens simply do not have the years of maturity of an adult, a typical adolescent may be "less adept at utilizing positive relationship skills and more likely to use anger, physical aggression, and emotional abuse in conflict." Additionally, given the other developmental stresses of this phase, coupled with the abundance of information available instantaneously online, teens today may attempt to resolve matters on their own out of embarrassment and shame.

Teens, Violence & Technology

With the advent of the iphone in 2007 and other similar and endless technological advances to keep society "always plugged in," teenagers today are indeed living a completely different, if not unique, reality than teenagers from just ten years ago. Since the 1990's, "one societal change that is necessary is to prevent the transmission of violence across generations is to attack the problem of children's exposure to violence more effectively" per authors LaViolette & Barnett (It Can Happen to Anyone, 2000). As past research has affirmed correlations between violence and television and games (Center for Innovative Public Health Research, 2015), the evolution of social media and intranet access have increased the opportunity to be exposed to violence as both television and games are readily available in both digital arenas.

While there's a sense of "always being plugged in," technology can also create a sense of autonomy and isolation, the latter an effort often carried out by DV abusers, which can create feelings of loneliness, depression and even anger. Moreover, instead of making sure search history is cleared, which is often recommended to DV survivors, in the case of teenagers, privacy settings and control over who can see information is utilized as a protective measure. UNLIKE previous generations, teens today must not only cope with their life being on display instantaneously and constantly via media but society is reliant on additional protective measures being instituted by caretakers and/or providers of such services which can be difficult to consistently maintain with software upgrades and other endless technological updates.

With millennials (defined as 18-34 years old) projected to outnumber baby boomers according to 2015 Pew Research, if the pace of these statistics continues in this direction, the United States may be en route to an epidemic of abuse that based on data will surely result in a future spike in DV figures. The CDC states that teen dating violence is preventable. If that's the case, then we must look at the current programs that are out there to address these issues and examine successes and shortcomings NOW. Moreover, it would be appropriate for companies like Apple, Microsoft, Google, AOL and the like, who help facilitate access to the internet and content to make the reduction of Teen Dating Violence one of their corporate priorities too; anything less seems irresponsible. I leave you with this thought: If we are able as a society to ubiquitously convey the message that "scissors are dangerous and that no one should run around with those in hand," then we should be able to make the same kind of commitment regarding our youth and how women and girls are valued. Our youth, our teens, are supposed to be having the time of their lives, not saving theirs.

More information can be obtained anonymously and confidentially via Love Is Respect: teens and parents anywhere in the country can call toll free, 1-866-331-9474 or log on to the interactive website, loveisrespect.org, and receive immediate, confidential assistance. In addition to a toll-free phone line, loveisrepect.org will be the first interactive dating abuse website, staffed by trained advocates, where teens can write and immediately get assistance in a one-on-one private chat room.

Tania Bradkin can be found at: @TaniaBradkin on Twitter, @TaniaBradkin on Instagram and at https://www.facebook.com/tania.bradkin on Facebook.