Almost 50% of teens report stalking or harassment by a partner. Stalking and harassment are startlingly common in American teen relationships, according to a new study. The findings, published in the journal Youth & Society, are part of the first national study of nonphysical youth dating abuse. They indicate that 48% of 12- to 18-year-olds who have been in a relationship have been stalked or harassed by a partner, and 42% have stalked or harassed a partner.
These victimization and perpetration numbers are unacceptably high and 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.
Previous research shows that harassing and stalking behaviors, including destroying belongings or going through social media accounts, can lead to physical violence.
But perhaps especially in the time of coronavirus—when physical distancing is the new norm—nonphysical dating abuse needs recognition 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. The coronavirus pandemic 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.
Data from the ongoing Survey on Teen Relationships and Intimate Violence (STRiV) study looked at responses from 148 boys and 172 girls currently in relationships or who had been in relationships in the past year. The survey asked teens if a partner had ever followed or spied on them, damaged something that belonged to them, or gone through their online accounts. The survey also asked the teens if they had ever done any of these things to a partner.
They found similar rates of perpetration and victimization for boys and girls: 46.5% of boys and 50.6% of girls reported stalking or harassing a partner, and 44.6% of boys and 51.1% of girls reported a partner doing these things to them.
Among boys, having worse relationships with parents and living in neighborhoods with higher rates of violent crime were both associated with a higher risk of perpetration. Among girls, being in relationships at a younger age, living in neighborhoods with higher rates of violent crime, using marijuana, and using alcohol were associated with a higher risk of victimization and perpetration.
The researchers found that Latino boys and Black girls faced a higher risk of both victimization and perpetration.
The findings show that forces larger than the individual shape dating abuse. 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.
The numbers may be worse, as many teens and parents don’t even know they are being abused
Research appears to support the premise that romantic relationships of adolescents look different from romantic adult relationships, and that, among other things, adolescents may be more likely to view abuse as a normal part of a relationship, continuing to feel attached to their partners, and/or view some of the abusive actions as evidence of love.
Online stalking or revenge porn (posting naked pictures, or faked naked pictures, of a dating partner) as examples of abuse that might fly below our radar as parents, because when we were younger, the way kids got together and the things they did to each other may have been different.
Survivors and perpetrators routinely fail to realize that their relationships are abusive. Even the most blatant forms of abuse can have a surprisingly slight influence on intimacy.
Teens don’t always recognize what’s healthy versus unhealthy, and they have a real need for closeness. For example, they may say, “He loves me a lot. He texts me all the time and always wants to know where I am.”
There’s a similar reluctance to see a very different type of behavior for what it is—abusive. It’s amazing how little some youth know about what counts as abusive behavior. There are people who don’t realize, for example, that breaking into your partner’s phone and snooping through their texts counts as controlling, abusive, illegal behavior.
Other forms of psychological abuse often seen are gaslighting, when one partner controls and manipulates the psyche of the other, sometimes persuading the weaker partner that he or she is crazy, and ghosting, the hurtful abandonment of one partner by simply ending communication and disappearing without the slightest explanation.
While it’s possible that these days there are more people in open relationships or dating multiple people at the same time, a lot of what people talk about during research is still cheating. So the issue of sexual fidelity and snooping through phones to figure out if a person is cheating are now things that people very much think about.
How a caring mom can prevent teen dating violence
Teens who experienced more caring from their mothers in 8th grade were less likely to be involved in dating violence, research finds. That held true even when there were high levels of conflict in the mom’s own relationship.
According to the study, lower levels of warmth, responsiveness, and support by the mother did not weaken the harmful effects of marital conflict on her children.
Previous research shows that adolescents who are exposed to marital conflict at a young age are at an increased risk to experience abuse in their romantic relations. However, the new study shows that the child’s relationship with their mother serves as a buffer by potentially promoting the teen’s feelings of self-worth.
Kids form internal working models about themselves and others based on the quality of their relationship with their parents. If the primary caretaker is abusive or inconsistent, children learn to view themselves as unlovable and others as hostile and untrustworthy. But positive parenting behaviors characterized by acceptance and warmth help children form positive internal working models of themselves as lovable and worthy of respect.
The results could help in the development of interventions that prevent teens from experiencing physical, emotional, or sexual relationship abuse. More than 30% of adolescents are the victim of some type of abuse by a romantic partner.
The research, which appears in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence, surveyed more than 140 adolescents whose parents were married or cohabitating at the time of their birth.
Trouble at home?
The families are part of an ongoing study on the development of children of alcoholic parents. Half of the participants had at least one parent, most often the father, with an alcohol problem. The researchers examined the group due to the connection between alcoholism in fathers and family dysfunction.
Although parental alcoholism has not been directly linked to teen dating violence, children growing up in alcoholic families experience greater exposure to marital conflict and harsh parenting in comparison to children from non-alcoholic families.
It’s clear not all children from alcoholic families are involved in dating violence, suggesting that there are protective factors at play as well. These protective factors need to be identified to advance prevention efforts.
On conflict and communication
The participants completed surveys in 8th grade and during their junior or senior year of high school, reporting on their exposure to conflict between their parents, perception of their relationship with their mother, and any involvement in dating violence.
The joint influence of parent-to-parent conflict and maternal-child interactions suggests the need for a multipronged approach to intervention that promotes communication and conflict resolution in the marriage and positive parenting behavior with the children.
Parents who’re better able to communicate and resolve disagreements will have less conflict in the household and can model appropriate conflict resolution skills to their children. The ability to successfully resolve conflicts should also reduce stress and enable parents to be more responsive to their child’s needs.
This article is derived from “Almost 50% of teens report stalking or harassment by a partner” (Boston University), “Love or abuse, many teens can’t tell the difference” (Boston University), “Caring moms may prevent teen dating violence” (University at Buffalo) and is used under CC BY 4.0.