What Has Longitudinal Research on Teen Dating Violence Taught Us? | National Institute of Justice

For a long time, intimate partner violence in the United States was considered a private matter that was best handled behind closed doors, not one that warranted support and intervention from the criminal justice system.

But the passage of the Violence Against Women Act (often referred to simply as VAWA) in 1994 was part of a paradigm shift. The act sought to improve services for victims of domestic violence, dating violence, sexual assault, and stalking, and improve the criminal justice system’s response to these crimes. The landmark act has been reauthorized four times since its passage, most recently in in 2022.

The National Institutes of Justice (NIJ) has invested more than $150 million in research on violence against women [1], beginning in the 1970s with a study focused on sexual violence. NIJ funded the first project on teen dating violence in 2005 and has continued to support studies in this area, including longitudinal studies that allow for examining risk and protective factors, and patterns and consequences of teen dating violence that extend into adulthood.

Spotlight on Teens: Longitudinal Study Reveals Trends, Characteristics, and Contexts of Teen Dating Abuse

In 2011, Dr. Elizabeth Mumford and Dr. Bruce Taylor (from NORC at the University of Chicago) and colleagues received the first of four NIJ awards supporting the examination of the extent and nature of teen dating violence that would span a decade of continuous research. The researchers developed the National Survey on Teen Relationships and Intimate Violence (STRiV), the first comprehensive national household survey focused on teen dating violence using detailed measures of victimization and perpetration.

STRiV was designed to collect data from parents/caregivers and youths, with six waves of data collection being conducted over seven years. At baseline (October 2013), the researchers collected completed surveys from 2,354 parent-child dyads, which included 1,804 youths ages 12-18.[2] One year later, 1,471 parent-child dyads (62.5% of the original baseline sample) completed follow-up surveys.

Research from these first two waves of data collection produced nationally representative estimates of the prevalence of different types of relationship abuse, documented the characteristics of abusive relationships, assessed risk factors, and placed these estimates in the context of adolescents’ key social relationships.[3] Unfortunately, the STRiV data did not have a sufficient sample for detailed examination of sexual or gender minority experiences.

However, a comprehensive portrait of teen dating violence emerged [4], with research highlighting:

  • Higher rates of dating violence victimization by a wide margin compared to other national studies. However, local and regional studies using more detailed measures have found rates closer to the STRiV estimates.
  • High overlap between victimization and perpetration. Over 84% of victims also reported perpetrating abuse, emphasizing that relationships that are characterized by violence typically involve mutual violence.
  • No differences between teen boys and girls regarding victimization rates, but girls reported perpetrating more physical abuse than boys. Specifically, girls ages 15-18 reported perpetrating moderate threats or physical violence at more than three times the rate of boys ages 15-18, and serious psychological abuse at more than four times the rate of boys.

Continued NIJ funding supported additional data collection over the subsequent five years (October 2015 – November 2020). These follow-up studies examined the development of relationship abuse from early adolescence to young adulthood, and identified risk and protective factors that could be used to inform intervention efforts that consider gender and developmental and contextual characteristics, including neighborhood-level factors.

Taken together, the research expanded our knowledge about patterns of dating relationships, aspects of problematic relationship dynamics and conflicts, and the social ecology of adolescent and young adult dating relationships, including family and neighborhood characteristics.

STRiV researchers found:

  • Youths showed different patterns of dating and dating violence perpetration over a period of four years, including a group representing non-daters (37.3%), a group showing steady and significant increases in both non-abusive dating and dating with violence perpetration (44.6%), and a group with consistently high levels of dating violence perpetration (18.1%).[5]
  • Increasing or consistently high levels of dating violence perpetration were associated with individual characteristics (for example, negative mental health) and family characteristics (for example, exposure to violence).[6] In particular, when parents experienced verbal abuse and physical violence by their partners, their children were more likely to experience abuse and violence in their dating relationships than those whose parents did not perpetrate violence.[7]
  • Youths who were characterized as having “positive parenting” based on their relationships and interactions with their parents were significantly less likely than those who were not to be tolerant of certain types of violence, particularly violence against boyfriends, as well as less likely to commit dating violence or be a victim one year later.[8]
  • Fights about money issues in youths’ dating relationships were associated with future physical violence perpetration in the context of a dating relationship.[9]
  • Teen dating violence victimization and perpetration were found in both low and high crime neighborhoods.[10] However, male youths living in neighborhoods with higher gender equality were less likely than those who lived in other neighborhoods to report perpetrating relationship abuse three years later.[11]
  • Many youths reported problematic dating relationships.[12] Higher levels of controlling behaviors (by both the partner and the respondent) were associated with higher rates of dating abuse victimization and perpetration.[13] Relationships characterized by unhealthy and intense relationship dynamics (for example, cheating, controlling behaviors, or lack of closeness) were associated with a higher probability of relationship abuse.[14]
  • Problematic relationship dynamics were also associated with negative mental health for male youths and dating victimization for female youths.[15] In addition, dating victimization was associated with poorer mental health for male youths and reduced intimacy in subsequent relationships for female youths when compared to youths who had not experienced dating victimization.
  • Sexual harassment co-occurred with dating abuse, especially psychological abuse.[16] Youths who were previously exposed to any violence were three times as likely to experience high levels of relationship abuse and sexual harassment (defined as unwelcome sexual comments jokes or gestures or physical intimidation in a sexual way), compared to those who were not previously exposed to violence. In addition, male youths who believed in traditional gender stereotypes were more likely than those who did not to perpetrate sexual harassment.[17]

Implications for Intervention and Prevention

Findings from the STRiV studies offer insight into potential intervention and prevention strategies to reduce teen dating violence and sexual harassment. Based on the studies, the investigators emphasized the following:

  • Addressing the family environment and youth’s previous experiences with violence may be especially constructive in preventing violence and abuse in the context of dating relationships, as the exposure to interparental or other types of violence is a key risk factor in patterns of increasing or consistently high adolescent dating violence perpetration over time.[18]
  • Minimizing traditional gender stereotypes and supporting a community/neighborhood environment characterized by gender equality may reduce male perpetration of abusive dating behaviors and sexual harassment.[19]
  • Educating adolescents to constructively manage conflicts about money and other financial matters with their dating partners could help prevent perpetration of physical dating violence.[20]
  • Prevention programs should address both sexual harassment and dating abuse to improve healthy adolescent interactions and relationships.[21]
  • Addressing patterns of relationship dynamics (for example, cheating, controlling behaviors, or lack of closeness) is crucial to building healthy relationship skills and preventing violence in youths.[22] In addition, supporting youths’ mental health should also be prioritized, given that the mental health of the individuals in the relationship has an impact on dating relationship dynamics and those dynamics also affect mental health over time, especially for male youths.

Consider These Findings Within Their Context and Apply With Care

Appreciating that the STRiV findings have greatly expanded our understanding of teen dating violence, the results should be considered within the context of the recognized study limitations. First, the STRiV data are subject to the usual limitations of self-reported surveys, such as subjects inaccurately recalling events or under-reporting of certain behaviors. Second, the measurement of sexual abuse was limited to four items due to the sensitive nature of these items and the wide age range of youths completing the surveys. Third, the study design did not allow for collecting contextual details regarding specific incidents, such as intensity, motivations, or acts of offense or defense, which is a goal for future research in this area. Fourth, recruitment to participate in STRiV research was limited to youths living in households, so incarcerated youths, homeless youths, or youths in foster care were not included.[23], the STRiV data did not have a sufficient sample for detailed examinations and comparisons.

Even in the context of these limitations, Dr. Yunsoo Park, a social scientist at NIJ, recognizes the importance of this type of research, stressing that “longitudinal research is essential for a comprehensive understanding of complex and dynamic processes and factors involved in crime and violence.” Dr. Kaitlyn Sill agrees, noting, “This research can be used to inform prevention and intervention strategies to improve long term outcomes for youths.”

About This Article

The work described in this article was supported by:

Additional Reading

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