For all the recent hand-wringing over “cyberbullying” in schools, an older and more insidious type of bullying unfortunately remains, according to a new study: teen dating abuse. About one third of youths (ages 14 to 20) in the study said that they have been the victims of dating violence. And one third also said that they’ve been the perpetrators of it.
The study looked at more than a thousand kids across the U.S. over two years, and was led by Michele Ybarra of the Center for Innovative Public Health Research. The researchers defined “violence” broadly: it could include psychological or emotional abuse as well as physical or sexual abuse.
What is surprising about the study’s results is the consistency—across gender, race, and family background—the cycle of abuse perpetuates. According to the study:
Girls were almost equally likely to be a perpetrator as a victim of violence: 41 percent reported victimization and 35 percent reported perpetration at some point in their lives. Among boys, 37 percent said they had been on the receiving end, while 29 percent reported being the perpetrator, Ybarra said. Twenty-nine percent of the girls and 24 percent of the boys reported being both a victim and perpetrator in either the same or in different relationships.
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. Boys were much more likely than girls to report that they had been sexually violent toward a date. Experiencing psychological dating violence was about equal for boys and girls. Rates generally increased with age but were similar across race, ethnicity and income levels, according to Ybarra.
These findings were presented on Wednesday at a symposium on teen dating violence at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association. Another presentation there, about the relationship between dating violence and bullying, discussed a study of 625 American youths over five years, which asked the kids questions about their behavior in their friendships and relationships as they traveled from middle school into high school. The questions focused on the old-fashioned kind of bullying: “teasing, name-calling, social exclusion, and rumor spreading.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the study found that young kids who showed early signs of bullying behavior toward their classmates were also more likely to bully their partners later in their teenage years. What was maybe more surprising was that kids engaging in non-physical bullying against their peers correlated with physical bullying against their boyfriends or girlfriends in the years to come.
“Both boys and girls who engaged in high rates of bullying toward other students at the start of the study were seven times more likely to report being physically violent in dating relationships four years later,” said Dorothy L. Espelage of the University of Illinois-Urbana-Champaign, who led the study. “These findings indicate that bully prevention needs to start early in order to prevent the transmission of violence in dating relationships.”
Espelage and her colleagues said that this research demonstrates an important developmental trend from childhood to young adulthood—one which can have very damaging outcomes. Dating violence that emerges in the high school years, as teens start to evaluate their romantic and sexual identities, is foreshadowed by bullying behaviors in middle school when kids are testing out how they will identify themselves among peers and social groups. That bullying behavior, too, is often foreshadowed by experiences within the context of their families: early exposure to abuse, aggression, or violence among family members can have a significant impact on kids’ behavior as they explore new types of relationships.
As bleak as all of this may initially sound, the study does not present a fatalistic view. As Espelage and her colleagues traced these causes and effects further and further back in the young people’s lives, they demonstrated the vital importance of early intervention into bad behavior. The hope is that, the earlier in kids’ lives the cycle of abuse is addressed, the better chance they will have in having healthy, happy relationships for all the years to come.