More than a third of teen guys and girls say they've been physically, emotionally or sexually abused in their dating relationships, according to new, unpublished data from a nationwide survey. Similar numbers of both sexes say they've been abusers.
Additional new research shows teens who abuse their girlfriends and boyfriends often share a past as middle-school bullies.
These findings, to be presented today in Honolulu at a meeting of the American Psychological Association, are the latest to shed light on a problem that has only come out of the shadows in recent years. Researchers and educators eager to stop violent patterns early - and reduce abuse not only among teens but among the adults they will become - already are testing programs that teach younger children and teens how to have healthier relationships. But as they seek to understand why so many young people hit, demean or force sex on their partners, much remains unclear.
One big question: Are boys and girls really equally at risk to become victims or abusers?
Some studies suggest they are and that girls may even be more likely than boys to lash out physically. In the new nationwide survey, which included 1,058 youths ages 14 to 20, 41% of girls and young women and 37% of boys and young men said they had been victims of dating abuse; 35% of girls and 29% of boys said they had physically, emotionally or sexually abused a partner, according to a news release from the association. Girls were more likely to say they had physically abused their partners; boys were "much more likely" to say they had sexually abused someone, the association says. But it did not provide specific numbers on those differences.
The survey also found that 29% of girls and 24% of guys said they had been both victims and abusers, in the same or different relationships.
Lead author Michele Ybarra, a researcher with the Center for Innovative Public Health Research in San Clemente, Calif., said in an e-mail that she could not discuss the study because it is under review for publication in a scientific journal. In general, data presented at a conference are not considered as authoritative as results reviewed by outside experts and then published.
The survey findings stand in stark contrast to one other set of statistics: In 2012, 94% of abuse victims who contacted the National Dating Abuse Helpline were female and just 6% were male, says Katie Ray Jones, president of the dating abuse helpline and the National Domestic Abuse Hotline. The dating line, which offers 24-hour help by online chat (at loveisrespect.org), text (text "loveis" to 22522) or phone (1-866-331-9474), is aimed at young people of both genders. But abused girls may be more willing to seek help, Jones says: "There's a lot of stigma about boys and men reaching out when they are victims."
The new survey results are in the line with some other findings, says Carlos Cuevas, a researcher from Northeastern University-Boston, who is presenting new data on dating violence among Latino youth at the conference. But he says the details behind the gender findings in various studies are important. When girls are the aggressors, he says, "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."
Dorothy Espelage, a researcher at the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign, says, "Without measures of fear, severity and injury, we need to be cautious" about interpreting the new nationwide survey results. Espelage worked on the survey with Ybarra and on another study to be presented today which shows links between middle school bullying and teen dating violence. That study followed 625 youths from middle school to high school and found that those who admitted verbally bullying peers as middle-schoolers were seven times more likely than other young people to report physically abusing their dates four years later.
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."
While programs at school and elsewhere in communities may help, families can play a central role. In his own survey of 1,525 Latino youths ages 12 to 18, Cuevas says he found that boys with the strong family support "typical in traditional Latino culture" were less likely to psychologically abuse dates.
Teens, like adults, sometimes have trouble recognizing that they are in an abusive relationship, experts say. The website loveisrespect.org says it's a warning sign when a partner:
• Checks your cellphone or e-mail without permission
• Constantly puts you down
• Is extremely jealous or insecure
• Has an explosive temper
• Isolates you from family or friends
• Makes false accusations
• Physically hurts you in any way
• Tells you what to do
• Repeatedly pressures you to have sex