July 31, 2013 at 3:09 PM ET
Girls are the perpetrators of some form of dating violence nearly as often as boys, surprising new studies show.
More girls – 43 percent – than boys – 28 percent – reported committing an act of physical dating violence, said researchers who are presenting their findings beginning Wednesday at the American Psychological Association’s annual meeting. Slightly more boys – 23 percent – than girls – 18 percent – reported perpetrating at least one act of sexual violence.
For her study, Dorothy Espelage, professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and her colleagues conducted a longitudinal study among 625 students starting in grades 5, 6, and 7, and followed them over a period of four years. Researchers interviewed the students at intervals over that time.
The study looked at a spectrum of behaviors, ranging from name calling and expressing anger, spreading rumors, and using controlling behaviors such as keeping track of dating partners, to physical violence such as slapping, hitting and biting, and sexual violence including forced kissing. Taken as a whole, one in three reported being the victim of at least one of the behaviors on that spectrum.
While most of us may not rank name-calling, or bad-mouthing another to their friends as “violence,” the researchers say they included the psychological and relationship tactics because they can have a profound impact.
“We see in other research that the psychological stuff has just as much of a negative impact on health outcomes as the physical and sexual” violence, said Carlos Cuevas, associate professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Northeastern University, who is also presenting a study on youth dating violence at meeting.
Espelage and her colleagues found that acts of verbal dating violence were common. For example, 31 percent of all study participants admitted deliberately doing something to make a partner angry, and 26 percent used a hostile tone. Physical and sexual violence were less common in the group studied with 10 percent saying they had hit or slapped a dating partner, 11 percent saying they’d bit a partner, and 6 percent saying they had forced a partner to kiss.
The main aim of the study Espelage helped conduct was to illuminate any links between bullying at younger ages and violence as children began dating.
Using self-reports taken at intervals from 2008 through part of 2012, the study showed a very clear and dramatic link. Middle school bullies were seven times more likely to become dating violence perpetrators by high school. This was true for both boys and girls.
“Our data show that for kids who gained self-esteem by dominance in middle school” via verbally or psychologically bullying others, “their need for control spilled over into their relationships four years later.”
It’s not just the Nelson Muntz types, either, Espelage explained. “I’m talking about the popular kids, the high social status kids, too. If you’ve got a nasty, bully girl in junior high, she’s going to have a bad outcome.”
Cuevas’ study of 1,525 teens focused on the influence of cultural factors in dating violence among Latino youth. He found low incidence of self-reported sexual violence – 2.1 percent of boys admitted perpetrating an act of sexual coercion compared to 0.4 percent of girls. Girls were more likely than boys to engage in any instance of physical or psychological dating violence.
Both Cuevas and Espelage stressed that other studies have shown that severe, injury-causing violence is more often male perpetrated, and that girls typically have a greater fear of injury from dating violence.
Before conducting his study, Cuevas anticipated that family bonds and support would help prevent both delinquency and dating violence. But “I was a little surprised… We thought it would be helpful, but it turned out to be very helpful in decreasing all forms of violence we measured, and all forms of delinquency.”
“We think family education is one of the real gateways for intervention and prevention,” he said. “If you are able to educate families and parents around these issues, it provides the first line of defense for helping kids avoid getting into these kinds of behaviors.”
Brian Alexander is a frequent contributor to NBC News and a co-author of “The Chemistry Between Us: Love, Sex, and the Science of Attraction.”