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Study: Nearly Half of Teens Who’ve Been in Relationships Have Experienced Dating Violence

Martha Kempner

The data suggest that 49 percent of adolescents who have been in a dating relationship have been victims of dating violence at least once in their lives and 46 percent have perpetrated it on a partner; emotional abuse seems to account for much of this.

A new study to be presented Wednesday at the American Psychological Association’s meeting in Honolulu finds an alarming number of teens have experienced dating violence. The study is being presented as part of a panel discussion on the topic.

Researchers used Wave 4 data from the national Growing Up With Media study, which included 878 teens who were surveyed in 2011 when they were between the ages of 14 and 19. According to the authors’ presentation abstract, the data suggest that almost half (49 percent) of adolescents who have been in a dating relationship have been victims of dating violence at least once in their lives and 46 percent have perpetrated it on a partner.

Emotional abuse seems to account for much of this, as the rates of physical and sexual abuse are much lower. The study found that 21 percent of those who had been in a relationship reported being the victim of physical abuse and 8 percent reported having been sexually abused. The proportion who said they had perpetrated these kinds of abuses was also smaller, with 19 percent saying they had physically abused a partner and 3 percent saying they had sexually abused a partner.

One of the study’s more surprising findings, however, is that the overall rates of teen dating violence are similar for boys and girls, though when it came to perpetrating violence girls were more likely to say they had physically abused a partner while boys were “much more likely” to say they had sexually abused someone. Carlos Cuevas, a researcher from Northeastern University who is presenting different research as part of the same panel talked to USA Today about these gender differences: “[When girls are the aggressors] it tends to be low-level behaviors, light hitting, name calling, things like that. When you look at serious sexual and severe physical assault, we tend to see a bit more from the boys than the girls.”

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Interestingly, the study also found that there was a lot of overlap in those who had been abused and suffered abuse. In fact, 29 percent of girls and 24 percent of boys said they had been both a victim and an abuser—some in the same relationship and some in different relationships. In their presentation abstract, the researchers suggest that we need to start looking at dating violence differently: “Categorically assuming distinct ‘victims’ and ‘perpetrators’ may lead to ineffective prevention [efforts].”

Another study that is being presented during the same panel suggests that bullying and teen dating violence may be related behaviors. Researchers followed 625 young people during both middle school and high school. They found that those who admitted to verbally bullying peers in middle school were seven times more likely to report physically abusing their dates four years later.

Dorothy Espelage, a researcher at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who is presenting this study, explained the link to USA Today this way:

Both behaviors are often “about establishing dominance,” she says. The results suggest there is a “violence trajectory” and “if it’s not addressed, it will escalate.”

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