As many as 20% of teenage girls have been physically and/or sexually abused by someone they've dated, according to findings from a new study of several thousand female high school students published in the Aug. 1 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.
"It's certainly quite disturbing to think about this large a number of young women -- one in five -- being victims of date violence while in high school," says study author Jay G. Silverman, PhD. But he says the findings are not incredibly surprising when you consider the rates of violence toward older women. "About one in four adult women report that they have been victims of violence by a male partner and the younger those women are, the more likely they are to have been victimized."
Girls most likely to report dating violence in Silverman's study were also nearly five times more likely than nonabused girls to use cocaine, three to four times more likely to use laxatives or induce vomiting to control weight, four to six times more likely to have ever been pregnant, and eight to nine times more likely to attempt suicide.
Risky sexual behavior was also significantly higher among abused girls. They were more likely to have sex before age 15, use drugs or alcohol prior to sex, and not use a condom, putting them at higher risk of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases.
It's difficult to know whether the unhealthy behaviors may be a result of being abused or vice versa.
Silverman, of the Harvard School of Public Health, tells WebMD the findings are important because they highlight a growing problem.
Unlike older women who can turn to battered women's shelters or other community services for help, Silverman says teenage girls have fewer places to go when dealing with abuse. Without that help, they may not be alert to warning signs and subsequent relationships may continue to result in violence.
While getting counseling and support is important, another problem facing parents, siblings, or friends who want to help is not knowing whether a teenager is even in a relationship.
The definition of teen dating can range from one night of 'hooking up' to a steady long-term relationship. "And, of course, 'long term' for teenagers may be a matter of weeks, so [it's not] an easy issue to address by any means," Silverman says.
A researcher who has conducted similar studies of teenagers says there often is a common thread among teens who are victims of dating violence.
"There is a very strong relationship between teens who have experienced dating violence and those who have already been sexually abused," says Elizabeth Saewyc, PhD, RN, of the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis. "It seems that previous sexual abuse traumatizes these young women and sort of programs their relationship patterns so that they tend to choose partners who are likely to be violent."
Both Saewyc and Silverman agree that while the girls may be more likely to be the victims, they're not the only ones who need help.
"[W]e have to remember of course that it's the young men who are responsible for the behavior and can ultimately control whether this behavior is going to occur or not," Silverman says.
But Saewyc says there are few programs aimed at counseling boys and even in places where there are such programs, it's difficult to get abusive boys to agree to go for help.