Research: Third of U.S. adolescents suffer some form of dating violence

September 27, 2001

(Embargoed) CHAPEL HILL -- About a third of U.S. adolescents surveyed reported having suffered some form of dating violence during romantic relationships, and 12 percent said they had been physically mistreated, according to a new study.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill researchers conducted the study, which they believe is the nation's largest and most representative examination of dating violence.

"Violence between intimate partners is a significant public health problem and is thought to be most prevalent in early adulthood," said Dr. Carolyn Halpern, assistant professor of maternal and child health at the UNC School of Public Health and study principal investigator. "Given the higher prevalence of partner violence among young adults, adolescents are a crucial group for study and intervention. Patterns of conflict that precipitate domestic violence in the adult years may start in adolescent dating experiences."

Analyses were conducted on a subset of 6,897 adolescents who reported an opposite-sex romantic relationship in the 18 months preceding the interview. Subjects were drawn from an original sample of about 15,000 teens who completed questionnaires during the 1994-95 school year. The work was part of the second wave of the UNC-based National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, also known as the Add Health project.

A report on the study appears in the October issue of the American Journal of Public Health. Besides Halpern, authors are Drs. Sandra L. Martin and Lawrence L. Kupper, associate professor of maternal and child health and professor of biostatistics, respectively, and graduate students Selene G. Oslak and Mary L. Young.

Students in grades seven through 12 were asked whether their boyfriends or girlfriends had ever called them names, insulted them, treated them disrespectfully, sworn at them or threatened them with violence, actions that researchers say constitute psychological violence. Students also were questioned about physical violence such as being pushed or shoved or having something thrown at them that might cause injury.

"Most violent behaviors were psychological, with swearing being the most common," Halpern said. "Approximately 10 percent of respondents reported have been pushed, and 3 percent reported that something was thrown at them. Patterns of victimization indicate that about one in five adolescents reported only psychologic violence and about one in 10 reported physical violence, usually accompanied by psychologic violence."

Victimization rates were similar for girls and boys, although girls were more likely to report being insulted or treated disrespectfully in front of friends, she said. Black and Asian boys were about twice as likely as white boys to report being victimized by their girlfriends. Students attending larger schools also tended to report more psychological and physical violence than those attending smaller schools.

Previous studies tended to show higher victimization estimates, probably because those investigations focused on older subjects or were based on small or "convenience" samples that were not as representative of the entire nation as the UNC sample was, Halpern said. Coupled with earlier research, the new work suggests that romantic partner violence may increase by a factor of two or more between adolescence and young adulthood and that having more romantic partners boosts the risk of victimization. "The higher prevalence of victimization in older age groups may be partly a function of the greater dating experience that generally accumulates with age," she said.
Drs. J. Richard Udry, professor of maternal and child health and of sociology at UNC, is principal investigator of the overall Add Health project, which is supported by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and more than a dozen other federal institutes and agencies.

Note: Halpern can be reached at 919-966-4462 or 966-6873. Her e-mail is School of Public Health contact: Lisa Katz at 966-7467 News Services contact: David Williamson, 962-8596.

UNC News Services

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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