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A National Survey Shines a Light on the Nature and Scope of Teen Dating Violence

Date Published
January 31, 2017

Teen dating violence, also called adolescent relationship abuse, is a serious public health problem. There is still much we do not understand about the nature and scope of this problem. Results of an NIJ-funded study can help change that.

Psychological abuse was the most common type of abuse victimization reported (over 60 percent), but there were also substantial rates of sexual abuse (18 percent) and physical abuse victimization (18 percent).

The study — the National Survey of Teen Relationships and Intimate Violence (abbreviated “STRiV”) — is the first to provide a comprehensive national portrait of teen dating violence with detailed measurements of both who perpetrates such violence and who has been victimized. The study found that approximately two thirds of youths (ages 12-18) who were in a relationship or had been in one in the past year reported they had been victimized (69 percent) or perpetrated violence (63 percent).

The research team of Bruce Taylor, Elizabeth Mumford, and Weiwei Liu of the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago conducted the study to better understand adolescent dating relationships, especially those involving relationship abuse. Specifically, the study sought to estimate the prevalence of different forms of relationship abuse among youth, document the characteristics of abusive relationships during adolescence, assess risk factors for abuse, and place these estimates within the context of adolescents’ social relationships and communications.

Participants were recruited from an already-established independent online survey research panel that included a large nationally representative group of youth and their parents/caregivers. The survey sample at baseline (the start of the study) consisted of 2,354 parent-child pairs who were mostly white (56 percent) or Hispanic (24 percent).[1] One year later, an abbreviated parent/caregiver survey and similar youth survey were administered to 1,471 parent-child pairs (62.5 percent of the original sample).

Psychological abuse was the most common type of abuse victimization reported (over 60 percent), but there were also substantial rates of sexual abuse (18 percent) and physical abuse victimization (18 percent). Fewer adolescents admitted to perpetrating acts of physical abuse (12 percent) or sexual abuse (12 percent).

There were notable differences by age and gender. Compared to youth aged 15-18, those 12-14 reported lower rates of psychological and sexual victimization and perpetration. While there were no differences between boys and girls for victimization rates, girls reported higher physical perpetration rates. Girls aged 15 to 18 reported perpetrating moderate threats/physical violence at more than twice the rate of younger girls and 3 times the rate compared with boys aged 15 to 18; girls aged 15 to 18 reported perpetrating more than 4 times the rate of serious psychological abuse than boys 15 to 18.

Consistent with other adolescent relationship abuse research, there was significant overlap between victimization and perpetration; 84 percent of victims also perpetrated abuse. This finding has important implications for prevention and intervention; it serves as a reminder that programming should recognize the fluidity of these roles among youth in relationships.

Researchers also looked at the link between parenting styles and relationship abuse in youth. The research team found that parenting styles could be categorized into three groups — Positive Parenting, Strict/Harsh Parenting, and Disengaged/Harsh Parenting. Youth in the Positive Parenting group were significantly less likely to be tolerant of certain types of violence, particularly violence against boyfriends,[2] as well as less likely to commit teen dating violence or be a victim during the year between the initial and follow-up surveys. This highlights the importance of parent-child relationships in preventing and addressing teen dating violence.

Financial behaviors also had an impact on abuse. The study found a correlation between respondents being asked to lend a partner or ex-partner money and teen dating violence; both seemed to reflect a more general pattern of controlling behaviors. Fostering healthy financial behaviors in youth, in the context of how they handle money in their relationships, may thus actually be beneficial for targeting teen dating violence.

The researchers also point out the importance of recognizing justifications that youth may use to rationalize violent behavior, as well as the potential benefit of incorporating female friendship groups in intervention/prevention efforts. Youths’ tolerance for teen dating violence and their friendship groups both influence abuse perpetration. For example, the researchers found that a general attitude of tolerance for girls hitting boyfriends led to perpetration of that violence, and that daters who reported recently discussing problems with friends (as well as girls who indicated all-girl friend social network groups) were also more likely to commit abuse.

There is also a close association between sexual harassment and psychological adolescent relationship abuse, suggesting that schools and other services may be able to integrate their relationship abuse and sexual harassment preventive efforts. Study results showed that sexual harassment tends to co-occur particularly with psychological abuse victimization and perpetration, especially for younger youth.

About this Article

The work described in this article was supported by NIJ grant 2011-WG-BX-0020 awarded to NORC at the University of Chicago.

The article is based on the report The National Survey of Teen Relationships and Intimate Violence (STRiV) (pdf, 18 pages).

Date Published: January 31, 2017