THURSDAY, March 29 (HealthDay News) -- Psychological and physical abuse is a common facet of dating for America's adolescents, a new survey reveals.
Researchers who polled more than 1,400 seventh graders found that more than 37 percent of 11- to 14-year olds had been the victim of some form of psychological violence, and almost one in six said they had fallen prey to physical violence while in an ongoing relationship.
"Issues of dating abuse among young teens are much more pervasive than I imagine many families believe," said Peter Long, president and CEO of Blue Shield of California Foundation, which co-sponsored the survey with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the organization Futures Without Violence.
Long said he was startled to see that three-quarters of the students reported they had a boyfriend or girlfriend by their middle-school years.
"That's a big number, and it means that this is the age when many kids are forming their views of what it is to have a relationship," Long said. This indicates that this is the appropriate age to intervene, he added, saying, "High school may even be too late."
The finding that 31 percent of these middle school kids is "experiencing some kind of electronic aggression or pressure such as provocative or insistent texting should be a warning sign for us," Long said, "as is the fact that 15 percent have experienced some kind of physical abuse while dating."
According to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention questionnaires, 10 percent of American high school students say they have been physically abused by their boyfriend or girlfriend. But clear insight regarding younger teens has been less well investigated, the researchers said.
To address that issue, between 2010 and 2012 surveys were conducted in eight middle schools in five U.S. cities: Los Angeles; Bridgeport, Conn.; Indianapolis; San Diego, and Saginaw, Mich.
The average age of the 1,430 students polled was 12, and boys and girls were equally represented. About one-quarter were white; 30 percent, black; 34 percent, Hispanic and 12 percent were a combination of other races.
The survey defined teen dating violence as any form of physical, sexual or emotional violence occurring within the context of dating. Psychological violence includes controlling behaviors, such as not allowing a girlfriend or boyfriend to do things with other people. Electronic violence covers bullying and name-calling online or via texts, and physical violence includes pushing, grabbing or kicking one's partner.
Asked about these and other behaviors in the previous six months:
- Thirty-seven percent said that they had seen boys or girls being physically abusive towards their dating partner. About one-quarter had a male or female friend who was physically violent to a partner, and more than 20 percent had a friend whose partner was physically violent to him or her.
- Forty-nine percent said they had been sexually harassed, either physically or verbally, by being touched inappropriately or joked about.
- Seven percent strongly agreed that it was okay for a boy to hit his girlfriend under certain circumstances, such as "a girl who makes her boyfriend jealous on purpose." Interestingly, 50 percent strongly agreed that it was OK for a girl to hit her boyfriend in the same siutation.
- Sixty-three percent agreed with what the pollsters considered a "harmful stereotype" about gender, such as "girls are always trying to get boys to do what they want" or "With boyfriends and girlfriends, boys should be smarter than girls."
"But the good news," Long said, "is that nearly three-quarters of the students reported that in the last six months they have talked to their parents about dating. Not necessarily about dating abuse, but about dating. Which means the door is open for parents to talk to their children about relationships. So, on the one hand we have real serious issues here. But, on the other hand, we also have a real opportunity for parents to engage."
A California mother of two, Alexandra Preston, 35, encourages parents of teens to take the survey findings to heart.
"There's a tendency to read about a study like this and think, 'That can't be true.' Because we want our kids to be safe and happy, and we don't want it to be true, right?"
"But I think it's important that parents acknowledge that understanding and establishing and respecting boundaries is something all of us have to struggle with throughout life, at every age," said Preston, who added that she herself was a victim of domestic violence in a prior marriage.
Preston, whose children are 13 and 10, is finance and operations manager for a non-profit agency that works with Robert Wood Johnson's Start Strong program, which aims to combat dating abuse in middle school. She said her own experiences have led her to be proactive with her children regarding healthy relationships.
Her son "remembers what happened in our home," she said, explaining she tries "to make sense of it, without demonizing the people who do it, and making sure they know it's not their fault."
Preston said this study could be helpful in raising awareness about dating issues, and encouraging parents to listen to their children.
For more on young teen relationships, visit the StartStrongTeens.
SOURCES: Peter Long, president and CEO, Blue Shield of California Foundation, San Francisco; Alexandra Preston, parent, California; Survey, March 2012, Start Strong: Building Healthy Teen Relationships
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