Nearly half of U.S. teens have been harassed by a partner. Experts at the Boston University School of Medicine have investigated the prevalence of mental abuse in teen relationships. The study revealed that nearly half of U.S. teens between the ages of 12 and 18 have been stalked or harassed by a partner.
The research is part of the first nationally-representative study of non-physical youth dating abuse.
“These victimization and perpetration numbers are unacceptably high,” said study lead author Dr. Emily Rothman. “Unfortunately, they are in line with estimates of similar problems like dating and sexual violence victimization, so they are both shocking and unsurprising at the same time.”
According to Dr. Rothman, previous research shows that harassing behaviors, such as destroying belongings or going through social media accounts, can lead to physical violence. She said that especially now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, non-physical dating abuse needs to be recognized as real and harmful in its own right.
“Adolescents have already been fully aware of how harmful online forms of abuse can be – that it’s valid to be interested in that and to try to address it,” said Dr. Rothman. “COVID has in some ways made parents, teachers, and other adults more willing to see, right now, that what we do online matters and is fully part of our real lives.”
The research was focused on data from the ongoing Survey on Teen Relationships and Intimate Violence (STRiV) study. The team analyzed survey responses from 148 boys and 172 girls who were currently in relationships or had been in the past year.
Teens reported on whether a partner had ever followed or spied on them, damaged something that belonged to them, or gone through their social media accounts. The adolescents were also asked if they had ever engaged in these threatening behaviors themselves.
The analysis showed that rates of perpetration and victimization were similar for boys and girls. Nearly 45 percent of boys and more than 51 percent of girls had been stalked or harassed by a partner. In addition, 46.5 percent of boys and 50.6 percent of girls identified themselves as a perpetrator.
Upon further analysis, the researchers found that girls are at a higher risk of being a victim or perpetrator of harassment if they live in neighborhoods with higher rates of violent crime, or use marijuana or alcohol. For boys, the risk of involvement in dating abuse is higher if they have strained relationships with their parents or live in neighborhoods with higher rates of violent crime.
More research is needed to investigate these associations, but the findings show that dating abuse is shaped by forces larger than the individual, said Dr. Rothman.
“We know from intervention research that the way to prevent stalking and harassment, or sexual and dating violence, is partly about addressing how young people think about relationships, gender norms, and improving their social-emotional skills, but these are also influenced by the context in which they are operating.”
“So, addressing racism, poverty, homophobia, misogyny, and disability-related discrimination is part of the solution, too,” said Dr. Rothman.
The study is published in the journal Youth and Society.