More than 20 percent of female high school students in the US and half as many males have experienced physical or sexual dating violence during the past year, according to a new study published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.
The findings, based on an analysis of 2013 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s national Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), add to a growing line of research indicating that dating violence victimization is a shockingly common experience among American teens.
The CDC defines teen dating violence as “the physical, sexual psychological or emotional violence within a dating relationship, including stalking,” which “can occur in person or electronically and might occur between a current or former dating partner.”
Research has linked teen dating violence with a number of short- and long-term consequences, such depressive symptoms and suicidal thoughts, eating disorders, risky sexual behaviors, and increased risk of drug and alcohol use. In the long-term, victims of teen dating violence are also at heightened risk of a range of chronic physical and mental health conditions.
Estimates of teen dating violence prevalence vary widely, because studies define and measure violence differently over different periods of time for different populations. As a result, studies report rates of teen dating violence ranging from as low as 9 percent to as high as 57 percent. One of the main contributors to this variation in prevalence rates is how teen dating violence is defined or conceptualized in the study. Specifically, some definitions include psychological and emotional forms of teen dating violence, while others are restricted to physical forms of violence.
The YRBS, which has been conducted by the CDC since 1999, provides nationwide estimates of sexual and physical dating violence among youth in grades 9 through 12. In the most recent YRBS, approximately one in ten high school students reported experiencing physical or sexual dating violence, with more than twice as many females as males reporting being victimized.
For the first time since its launch, the 2013 YRBS survey gathered information on high school students’ exposure to more serious forms of physical and sexual teen dating violence, and has excluded students who were not dating. The new questions included in the 2013 YRBS are expected to provide a more accurate estimate, the researchers say.
Health-risk behaviors more common among victims of teen dating violence
To assess the prevalence of physical teen dating violence, the survey asked 9,900 high school students who dated during the previous 12 months how many times someone “physically hurt them on purpose.” Prevalence of sexual teen dating violence was assessed with the question: “How many times did someone you were dating or going out with force you to do sexual things that you did not want to do?” The survey also assessed the prevalence of health-risk behaviors among the students, including suicidal ideation and drug and alcohol use.
The results of the survey revealed that around 1 in 5 (20.9 percent) female students and 1 in 10 (10.4 percent) male studies reported experiencing some form of physical and/or sexual teen dating violence in the past 12 months.
Around 6.6 percent of female students and 4.1 percent of male students reported experiencing physical teen dating violence only in the past year, while 8 percent of female students and 2.9 percent of male students reported experiencing sexual teen dating violence only. Additionally, 6.4 percent of female students and 3.3 percent of male students reported experiencing both sexual and physical teen dating violence during the past 12 months.
These students were more likely to experience all health-risk behaviors related to teen dating violence, while those who reported no teen dating violence were least likely to experience such behaviors.
While male and female victims of dating violence experienced negative outcomes, females were more likely to suffer from severe consequences. For example, female students were more likely than male students to report not going to school because of safety concerns, experiencing physical dating violence, being forced to have sexual intercourse, and experiencing sexual dating violence. Female victims of dating violence were also more likely than male victims to report adverse mental health outcomes, including suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
Researchers have warned that dating violence is so common among young people that it is becoming normalized, with girls and young women rarely reporting experiences of victimization because they view it as inevitable. The author of one recent study remarked that sexual harassment and objectification of women and girls are so ubiquitous that they “appear to be part of the fabric of young women’s lives.”
The team behind this latest study suggest that future work “should examine in more detail the frequency of physical and sexual teen dating violence and the effect that a higher frequency of teen dating violence has on negative health outcomes.”