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Dating Violence Among Young People

SPH study: teens who hit siblings or peers more likely do the same to dating partners


Emily Rothman, an SPH associate professor, is the lead author of a study showing teens who hit their siblings or peers are more likely to be violent with dating partners.

Adolescents who hit or punch a sibling or peer are more likely to do the same to a dating partner than nonviolent teens. This is the disturbing finding of a new study led by researchers at the BU School of Public Health.

The study, published in the December issue of Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine and released online yesterday, is the first to directly link sibling, peer, and dating physical violence in a representative sample of high school students, according to lead author Emily Rothman, an SPH associate professor of community health sciences.

“If someone is hitting a sister or brother or getting into fistfights at school, the odds that they will use force with a dating or sexual partner are high, particularly if they are male,” she says. “Adults need to intervene early when they become aware that a teen is using violence.”

Rothman and colleagues surveyed 1,398 high school students at 22 public high schools in Boston between January and April 2008. Of those who were violent with siblings, 29 percent were also violent with dating partners, and of those who were violent with peers, 27 percent were also violent with dating partners.

The research team found that overall, 18.7 percent of students reported having used physical violence against a dating partner in the previous month. Specifically, 9.9 percent reported hitting, punching, kicking, or choking their partner; 17.6 percent pushed, shoved, or slapped him or her; and 42.8 percent swore, cursed at, or called their partner fat, ugly, stupid, or some other insult.

Experiencing physical dating abuse can result in injury, death, and mental health problems, including suicidal thoughts, substance use, disordered eating, and depression. As many as 10 percent of U.S. high school students report having been hit, slapped, or physically hurt on purpose by their boyfriend or girlfriend in the past year, according to the authors.

One of the study’s most important lessons, Rothman says, is that “medical professionals, teachers, parents, and adolescents themselves need to be aware that a high percentage of high school students who use violence in one context are likely to use it in another.”

This study used data from the Boston Youth Survey, a locally representative sample of Boston high school students. The students were asked not only about their use of physical violence against siblings, peers, and partners, but about emotional abuse as well, such as having yelling arguments or cursing at or insulting the other person. More than half reported using emotional abuse in the past month.

The survey question about dating violence specified that by “dating,” the researchers meant a “boyfriend or girlfriend, or someone who you were romantically or sexually involved with” and that violence did not refer to playing or joking around. The researchers could thus feel confident that the physical dating violence reported was for a variety of romantic and sexual partnerships, since not all youth use the term “dating” or go out on actual dates, and that the violence reported did not reflect horseplay or innocent roughhousing.

The authors urge health care providers and families to be aware that those who are violent with siblings and peers are at greater risk of being violent with a dating partner, and that the problem should be addressed before it becomes entrenched.

“Our study documents that physical violence against dating partners is widespread,” says coauthor Renee Johnson, an SPH assistant professor of community health sciences. “This is a major public health problem that needs to be addressed.”

Besides Rothman and Johnson, the study’s coauthors are Janice Weinberg, an SPH associate professor of biostatistics, Deborah Azrael, a Harvard School of Public Health research associate of health policy and management, and Diane Hall, a behavioral scientist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The study was supported in part by grants from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation New Connections program.

Elana Zak can be reached at ezak@bu.edu.


7 Comments on Dating Violence Among Young People

  • Anonymous on 12.07.2010 at 5:28 am

    Horray, common sense!

  • Anonymous on 12.07.2010 at 9:03 am


    So now we know- people who are inclined to exhibit violence are inclined to exhibit violence.
    As far as the solution being the early intervention of adults (parents implied), I think any serious study would show that both the people who are inclined to be abusive towards their associates, and those associates who are willing to put up with it, have themselves been maltreated, usually in the home, most commonly by their parents. As long as the way people raise their kids is none of anyone else’s business, and as long as violence against women is not to be tolerated but violence against men and boys is okay,I fail to see how this problem will ever be solved.

  • Anonymous on 12.07.2010 at 11:02 am

    Proving an assumption

    This study made a valuable contribution by showing that there is a definite correlation between violence with peers, siblings and dating partners. While this was the expected outcome, it is a valuable test of a long held assumption.

    I read the full text at the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine and was impressed with the honesty in describing the methods, sources and limitations of the study and conclusions.

    Good work!

  • Anonymous on 12.07.2010 at 11:53 am


    good article. what this study brings is awareness and serves as a reminder to all of us that interact with teens on so many levels -as their aunts/uncles, parents, grandparents, cousins, neighbors to be aware & get involved when necessary. yes its totally common sense that violence breeds violence BUT like so many other things we become desensitized to it. I commend this study for shining the light on the early signs of spousal/partner abuse.

  • Anonymous on 12.07.2010 at 5:19 pm

    Does this study look at violence toward a peer or relative or the same sex and a partner of the opposite sex? Or any violence between some intermixed gender?

  • Brian T. Pedigo, Esq. on 12.17.2010 at 12:33 pm

    Parental liability for minor's torts

    Parents should be aware that their child’s violent propensities could also lead to civil liability in the State of California.


  • Anonymous on 11.01.2012 at 10:32 am

    I wonder where the money came from to complete this study. I can’t imagine this information being useful, while it’s concerning that 18.7% of all respondents admitted to using physical violence. The 29% of people with a history of violence using violence actually seems low. Also, where are the data that show a correlation between some childhood characteristic or propensity that correlates to staying in an abusive relationship? I mean, if she hits you once, it’s her fault; if she hits your twice, its your own fault. (I use the feminine third person pronoun only because our American society seems to demand it these days.)

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