Teen Dating Violence: Are we making progress?

Thanks to President (and Michelle) Obama, February is National Teen Dating Violence Prevention Month in the USA. Researchers and educators are warning of the pervasiveness of this problem and the consequences for the health and social adjustment of adolescent victims and perpetrators. These concerns and the connections to other forms of youth crime, violence and social dysfunction, make it a priority area for intervention.

Some indicators:

Youth under 18 represented 22% of the Canadian population in 2004 but made up 58% of victims of sexual offences (bwss.org, derived from Statistics Canada Measuring Violence against Women, Statistical Trends 2006.)

In the USA a recent survey indicates that nearly one in five women have been raped at some point, almost 50% by an intimate partner and almost 40% of those victims were under 18 years of age. (cdc.gov The National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey 2010)

“Despite the problems in estimating prevalence rates, it is not unlikely that physical aggression occurs in one of three adolescent dating relationships, an alarmingly high rate”. ( vawnet.org)

Alarmingly high indeed. But while good longitudinal data specific to teen dating violence does not seem to be available it may be reasonable to think that the frequency and severity of this behaviour could be following a trend line consistent with broader rates of youth violence and sexual crime. These rates have been going down steadily since the mid- nineties and are approaching 50% of previous levels.

What is causing the decrease in youth crime and violence? Is it general conditions in society?Improved parenting? Better educational attainment? More social awareness and intolerance? Is it the results of targeted prevention programs? Is it better lighting in hallways, subways and bus stops? Is it the proliferation of cellphones and the ease of dialling 911 or recording a video? Are some of the “risk factors” specific to people who are likely to offend, changing? Factors like poverty, bad neighbourhood, absence of responsible male models, prior involvement with the justice system, emotional issues, or negative experience in the family?

Unfortunately, prevention is a very difficult thing to measure. Ascertaining why something didn’t happen is difficult because many different factors could have caused it and we cannot control these factors in a social environment like we can in a lab. But we try to evaluate, and we hope that with enough evaluations accumulating we will be able to do some kind of meta analysis that will help.

In 2014 there were two systematic reviews of evaluations of teen – oriented preventive programming.

One of these was carried out on behalf of the Campbell Collaboration by Lisa De la Rue and associates. (campbellcollaboration.org. School-based Interventions to Reduce Dating and Sexual Violence:A Systematic Review, De la Rue, Polanin, Espelage, Pigott, 2014.) Of a total of 1608 evaluations only 23 met the criteria of having high quality evaluation with control groups and post-intervention measures of both attitudes and incidents.

Another systematic review, carried out by Sarah DiGue and associates for the US Centre for Disease Control and Prevention focussed on primary sexual violence prevention strategies (not necessarily limited to schools) and going back over a period of thirty years. They found 140 evaluations which met quality criteria somewhat similar to those of the Campbell Collaboration. (nsvrc.org Key Findings from a Systematic Review of Primary Prevention Strategies for Sexual Violence Perpetration, 2014)

The conclusions drawn by these two reviews are surprisingly consistent. Both found a mix of results and conclude that changing attitudes is easier than decreasing perpetration. And even attitude change may diminish over time if the interventions are short-lived. The Digue study identified a Safe Dates school-based program which incorporates many class sessions, a project and supportive curriculum changes, as showing positive results in both attitudinal and perpetration change. They also suggested further study of a boys mentoring program (coaching boys into men) using school coaches and athletes, as showing promise. About one in four interventions, such as showing a video, showed no positive effects and may even have made things worse. Interestingly, one of the interventions evaluated was the 1994 Violence Against Women Act in the US, which increased penalties and provided funds for public education and research. The review concluded that this legislation did lead to a decrease in perpetration, which supports our premise that overall rates of teen dating violence may be diminishing.

The De la Rue study concluded that school-based prevention programs do have a positive impact on student knowledge and attitudes. However, their impact on perpetration or victimization is not encouraging. The researchers recommend that imparting behaviour change that is enduring will require better resourcing and more extensive and longer term interventions. They suggest more exploration of encouraging bystander intervention and affecting peer attitudes.

The conclusions are consistent with findings in other areas of prevention, in that interventions aimed at achieving enduring change in attitudes of potential perpetrators, and those aimed at achieving long term behaviour change, require extensive, well-resourced and ongoing interventions. Short-term, light-weight interventions will have little lasting effect.

One of the most promising evaluations we have come across is the Fourth R program, a school curriculum physical and health education program which has been implemented in many schools in Canada under the tutelage of the Centre for Prevention Science of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health located at Western University in London Ontario. This program provides a 21 lesson curriculum delivered by teachers with specialized additional training. A randomized controlled trial found that 2.5 years after implementation with more than 1700 students 14-15 years old, physical dating violence among the control group was about 2.5 times greater than among the intervention group. (youthrelationships.org)

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