Sponsored by the National Institute of Justice, the National Survey on Teen Relationships and Intimate Violence was conducted by NORC at the University of Chicago, a prominent research centre which provided preliminary results to The Associated Press. Input came from a nationwide sample of 667 youths aged 12-18 who'd been dating within the past year and who completed a self-administered online questionnaire.
Nearly 20 per cent of both boys and girls reported themselves as victims of physical and sexual abuse in dating relationships — but the researchers reported what they called a startling finding when they asked about psychological abuse, broadly defined as actions ranging from name-calling to excessive tracking of a victim. More than 60 per cent of each gender reported being victims and perpetrators of such behaviour.
The survey found no substantive differences in measures by ethnicity, family income or geographic location.
Elizabeth Mumford, one of the two lead researchers for the survey, acknowledged that some of the behaviours defined as psychological abuse — such as insults and accusations of flirting — are commonplace but said they shouldn't be viewed as harmless.
"None of these things are healthy interactions," she said. "It's almost more of a concern that our gut reaction is to accept this as natural."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in its campaigns against teen dating violence, also stresses the potential seriousness of psychological abuse.
"Teens often think some behaviours, like teasing and name calling, are a 'normal' part of a relationship," says a CDC fact sheet. "However, these behaviours can become abusive and develop into more serious forms of violence."
Bruce Taylor, the other lead researcher for the NORC survey, said the overall abuse figures were higher than previous national studies of dating abuse, revealing "the startlingly widespread nature of this problem."
Using a definition under which adolescent relationship abuse can occur in person or through electronic means, in public or private, and between current or past dating partners , the survey estimates that 25 million U.S. adolescents are victims and nearly 23 million are perpetrators.
Taylor and Mumford said the high rates in their survey may stem in part from youths being candid due to the privacy of the online format. They also suggested that dating abuse is now so common that young people have little concern about admitting to it.
The survey found fairly similar rates of victimization and perpetration among boys and girls — even in the sub-categories of physical abuse and sexual abuse. Many previous studies have found that girls are markedly more likely to be victims of physical and sexual dating abuse than boys.
However, the researchers detected a shift as adolescents age.
"We found that girls perpetrate serious threats or physical violence more than boys at ages 12-14, but that boys become the more common perpetrators of serious threats or physical violence by ages 15-18," they wrote.
Mumford noted that the questionnaire did not delve into such details as which party instigated a two-way confrontation, or whether injuries resulted. She said it was possible girls suffered more serious injuries than boys.
"Our work suggests that prevention programs need to address both victimization and perpetration, not one or the other," Mumford and Taylor wrote. They recommended starting prevention programs in middle school, and noted that that teen dating violence is viewed as a possible precursor to adult intimate-partner violence.
Andra Tharp, a health scientist with the CDC's violence prevention division, said two-way teen dating violence — with both partners engaging in abuse — is widespread.
She said it's an ongoing challenge among experts in the field to find the right balance in addressing the role of gender — exploring the extent to which both boys and girls are perpetrators, while identifying situations where girls are likely to suffer more serious harm. For example, Tharp said that if a boyfriend retaliates against a girlfriend who hit him, there's a higher risk of injury to the girl if —as is likely — the boy is stronger.
Dr. Elizabeth Miller, chief of adolescent medicine at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC, said it's important to make distinctions about the types of abuse. She contends that, while boys and girls may engage in psychological abuse at comparable levels, girls are more likely to be the victims in cases of sexual violence and coercion.
"When you look at the need for medical attention, females are experiencing more severe consequences," she said. "We're doing ourselves a disservice if we pretend it's all the same."
While many girls are capable of aggressive behaviour, they generally don't share the view of some boys that sexual coercion is acceptable, Miller said.
The research by Mumford and Taylor is expected to be published soon in The Journal of Interpersonal Violence, a peer reviewed academic journal.
The Associated Press and NORC conduct joint polling under the name AP-NORC, but this study was conducted independently by NORC.
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