Even Seventh-Graders Are Hitting Their Girlfriends (And Boyfriends)

Domestic violence can start as early as middle school, new research shows . posted on

There’s a lot of data about high school dating violence, but not as much about younger kids. However, middle-schoolers are dating according to a team of researchers from the program Start Strong: Building Healthy Teen Relationships, who talked to seventh-graders from eight middle schools in four states. Seventy-five percent of those kids said they’d had a boyfriend or girlfriend at some point, while 37 percent of the kids said they’d been victims of psychological abuse (such as, being forbidden to hang out with their friends), and 15 percent said they’d suffered physical violence.

The kids also subscribed to a lot of gender stereotypes. Two-thirds of them believed in at least one of a list of generalizations about boys and girls, like “girls are always trying to get boys to do what they want them to do,” or “with boyfriends and girlfriends, the boy should be smarter than the girl.” Deborah Gibbs, an expert on child welfare at the Research Triangle Institute, which helped conduct the study, said that these kinds of “rigid and prescriptive” gender beliefs are predictors of who might end up in violent relationship later on — so even kids who hadn’t been involved in abuse were at risk for it.

It’s worth noting that this study didn’t just address violence against girls. Actually, kids tended to see violence against boys as more acceptable — half of students said it would sometimes be okay for a girl to hit her boyfriend, such as if he “makes his girlfriend jealous on purpose.” Only 7 percent said a boy could hit his girlfriend in the same situation.

Start Strong says their sample isn’t representative of all kids nationwide. But Stephanie Nilva, Executive Director of the New York City anti-abuse organization Day One, told Shift the data didn’t surprise her at all. While she couldn’t point to any other specific research on seventh-graders, she said studies of dating violence among teens typically find that 10-40% have experienced it. And the 10% number comes from a study that only looked at violence in the past six months, meaning the real prevalence may be higher. So 15% didn’t strike her as out of the ordinary, even in kids so young.

For adults, one widely-cited study found that one in four women will experience domestic violence over the course of her life. The most at risk are women between 20 and 24. Men are victims too, although estimates vary widely — anywhere from 100,000 to 6 million men in America are abused by partners every year.

When it comes to solutions, Nilva says preventive education that teaches kids how to have a healthy relationship has proven effective. And that’s Start Strong’s next goal: they’re already working on anti-violence initiatives in several schools. Gibbs says the next step is to do followup studies on this schools, to see if Start Strong’s interventions are actually changing the minds of kids who think it’s okay to hit.

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