Q&A: The Urban Institute Surveys Teens About Digital Dating Abuse

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Four smiling diverse young people.

Many youth, their families and youth workers are finding that harassment and abuse are happening more and more in the digital realm.

Recently, researchers from The Urban Institute surveyed 5,647 middle and high school students about unwelcome interactions via technology. Teens’ survey responses revealed that text messages, email and social media often take the place of, or are combined with, violent in-person behavior.

The National Institute of Justice–funded study, whose results were released last year in the report “Technology, Teen Dating Violence and Abuse, and Bullying,” found digital abuse to be pervasive: one in four dating teens reported digital abuse or harassment from a partner. More than that, the authors say digital abuse is a red flag for other types of teen dating violence experiences. Half of those who reported digital abuse also reported being physically abused by partners, and one-third reported sexual coercion.

We spoke with Janine M. Zweig, lead author of the study, about who is most at risk and what more can be done.

NCFY: Who did you find was most at risk of being involved in teen dating violence and why?

Zweig: We found that girls were more likely than boys to be victims of digital abuse from dating partners. And girls are twice as likely as boys to experience digital abuse of a sexual nature—sexually harassing contacts through technology. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth also report more digital abuse from dating partners than heterosexual youth. Why these youth are more vulnerable than others is not clear and requires longitudinal studies on these issues.

NCFY: What have you found are effective ways adults can help teens experiencing dating violence through technology?

Zweig: This study was not an evaluation of techniques to address dating violence through technology, so we cannot speak to effectiveness of particular strategies to address this. 

However, parents’ and children’s relationships will always come down to trust in each other. Parents need to be aware of what their kids are doing, but also give them the room they need to grow up. So we don’t advocate that parents monitor their kids’ social media profiles unbeknownst to them. But we do recommend opening a dialogue and reassuring kids of their unconditional love and support.

Parents should make it clear to their kids that they are concerned and interested in what’s going on in their lives. Parents could start a dialogue about abuse via technology and make their children aware of these issues. They can inquire about how their kids’ dating partners relate to them online and through their cell phones.

NCFY: You mention the need for more research. What do you hope further study would find?

Zweig: We need to study this issue over time in order to really understand the consequences of these experiences for youth.  We also need to find ways to encourage youth to seek help.  Only 9 percent of victims in our sample even told anyone about these experiences they were having. We need to understand what prevents youth from seeking help and what ways adults can encourage them to find help.

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