Michelle Healy, USA TODAY
Victims of teen dating violence are at increased risk of mood and behavior problems as young adults, and at increased risk for future violent relationships, a new study suggests.
Researchers who analyzed data from a nationally representative survey of 5,681 teens ages 12 to 18 found roughly 30% of both boys and girls said they had been the victim in an aggressive heterosexual dating relationship. This adds to a body of research suggesting that teen dating violence "is a substantial public health problem," says the study, in today's Pediatrics.
About 20% of both girls and boys said they experienced only psychological violence; 2% of girls and 3% of boys said just physical. Ten percent of girls and 8% of boys cited both.
When researchers analyzed data from the same young adults five years later, they found notable differences:
• Girls victimized by a teen boyfriend reported more heavy drinking, smoking, depression and thoughts of suicide.
• Boys who had been victimized reported increased anti-social behaviors, such as delinquency, marijuana use and thoughts of suicide.
• Those of both sexes who were in aggressive relationships as teens were two to three times more likely to be in violent relationships as young adults.
The data did not specifically address why many of the negative outcomes were different for boys and girls, or explain the conditions that led to revictimization, says Deinera Exner-Cortens, lead author of the study and a doctoral candidate in developmental psychology at Cornell University.
"We know that girls are more likely to experience more severe physical violence, sexual violence and injury, and they report more fear around their aggressive dating experiences," she says. "We need more research to better understand how aggression functions in teen dating relationships."
Healthy romantic relationships "are a very important developmental experience for teens," she adds. "They help them develop a sense of identity, a sense of autonomy."
"This study is useful in exploring a range of consequential health outcomes that may be associated with teen dating violence," says Peggy Giordano, a sociologist who studies adolescent development at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. She was not involved in the study.
"The results show that effects can persist well past the period of adolescence itself, and suggest the need to consider the impact for young men as well as young women who report psychological and physical abuse experience."
It's important that parents, educators and pediatricians talk to teens about dating violence so that those who need help can be linked quickly with prevention programs and assistance, says Exner-Cortens.