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UNH Study Identifies Risk Factors in Teen Dating Violence

Paul Proshin

Nearly one in ten New Hampshire teens reported being the victim of physical dating violence during the past year, and more than one in ten New Hampshire teens reported being the victim of sexual dating violence during the past year.

Those are just some of the findings in a new report from the Carsey School of Public Policy at the University of New Hampshire. Assuistant Professor Katie Edwards is one of the authors of the study. She spoke with NHPR’s Peter Biello.

(The transcript of this interview has been edited for clarity.)

Researchers typically looked at things like peer group norms and prevalent attitudes towards violence in relationships, but you took a different approach.

What I really wanted to do was to try to look more specifically at whether there are kids in New Hampshire who are at greater risk for dating violence. Who are those kids? I also wanted to go beyond attitudes and knowledge and look more at school and community characteristics that may serve as risk or protective factors for dating violence.

And some of the bigger findings in this study that you conducted (along with Angela Neal) is that nearly one in 10 New Hampshire teens (9.1 percent) reported being the victim of physical dating violence. And more than one in 10 New Hampshire teens reported being a victim of sexual dating violence. But it wasn’t uniform throughout the state. There was some variation. Was there a rhyme or reason to that variation?

There was variation. We saw it close to zero in some schools while in other schools it was 15 percent. For sexual dating violence, it was close to zero up to 17 percent. Certainly what we found is that teens who were in more impoverished communities in New Hampshire had higher rates of dating violence, which is consistent with a number of other studies that have been conducted, both with youth and adults. We actually found in New Hampshire what we’re seeing in other studies.

We also found that teens who reported high levels of “community mattering”—feeling significant to their community, feeling like they mattered to teachers and parents—those kids reported lower levels of dating violence, which I think is really important, because that’s modifiable. There are certain things we can do to help you feel important.

The other thing about that variable: community mattering doesn’t just relate to dating violence, but also to a host of other academic and other variables. Youth who report feeling like they matter report less depression and higher academic achievement. So I think that’s one of the more important findings coming out of this.

So essentially that variability in those rates are accounted for by poverty, the extent to which teens feel like they matter, and some demographic variables.

We found that females, ethnic minorities, and sexual minorities report higher rates of dating violence than males and heterosexual youth and white youth.

How much worse is it for someone who is female or a racial or ethnic minority or a sexual minority?

Girls are more likely than boys to report physical dating violence, so 11 percent of girls reported physical dating violence, 7.1 percent of boys. You see a bigger difference with sexual dating violence: 15.7 of girls reported being victims of sexual dating violence in this past year, 5.2 percent of boys reported being victims of sexual dating violence.

The biggest difference comes when you start looking at heterosexual youth compared to sexual minority youth. Close to 25 percent, one in four, reported being physically abused by a dating partner in the past year, compared to 7.5 percent of heterosexual youth.

Similarly, 26.1 percent of sexual minority youth in New Hampshire reported being the victims of sexual dating violence, whereas that number was nine percent for heterosexual youth.

And again, this is pretty consistent with other research that’s been done. We pretty consistently find sexual minority youth being more at risk for dating violence and sexual assault than heterosexual youth.

Why is it important to study the intersection of physical and sexual dating violence and other demographic characteristics such as sexual orientation, school characteristics such as the school poverty rate?

A lot of the school and community characteristics we looked at are modifiable things. The extent to which youth feel like they’re connected—we know there are ways we can change that. If we get a sense of what the factors are that increase risk for dating violence or reduce risk, let’s try to change that.

I also think, when looking at demographic factors:  I think it’s important to know which youth are most at risk and why. We didn’t look, for example, at exactly why youth in New Hampshire who are sexual minorities are more at risk, but in other papers I’ve published, we’ve found that what explains that is feelings of minority stress—particularly feeling like you’re being bullied for sexual orientation. We know being bullied can lead to stress and substance use. And stress and substance use can lead to dating violence.

We also know that a lot of kids who feel ashamed of their sexual orientation—if they’re dating someone, they’re less likely to seek help if you’re being abused, so you’ll see that abuse continue.

So I think this shows us that we need to first do what we know works for dating violence prevention in terms of education and bystander training and healthy communication and healthy sexuality, but I think this speaks to the fact that we also need to address school climate and homophobic teasing and we need to make kids who are sexual minorities feel safe in school. 

Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.

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