Cyber Dating Abuse Common Among Teens

Deborah Brauser

November 18, 2014

More than 40% of teens report they have been victims of cyber dating abuse, which involves the use of technology to control, harass, threaten, or stalk another person in the context of a dating relationship.

Results of a cross-sectional study conducted by investigators at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, Pennsylvania, show that 41% of teenagers had been victims of cyber dating abuse in the previous 3 months, with females affected more frequently than males.

In addition, investigators found that cyber dating abuse was associated with other forms of physical, sexual, and psychological abuse.

The investigators also found significant associations between cyber dating abuse and nonuse of contraceptives and "reproductive coercion" in female participants.

"The intersection between technology and unhealthy behaviors in dating relationship assessed in this study clearly represents a challenge for adolescent health promotion," write the investigators, led by Rebecca N. Dick.

"The associations of cyber dating abuse with sexual behavior and pregnancy risk behaviors suggest a need to integrate ARA [adolescent relationship abuse] education and harm reduction counseling into sexual health assessments in clinical settings," they add.

The study was published online November 17 in Pediatrics.

Common Problem

In the "first clinic-based study of cyber dating abuse," the investigators report that 93% of adolescents between the ages of 12 and 17 years now own a computer, 78% have a cell phone, 63% exchange daily text messages, and 29% have daily communication through various social media websites.

In the study, 1008 adolescents (76.3% female) who were seeking services at 1 of 8 school-based health centers in Northern California during the 2012-2013 school year filled out a confidential survey. The participants wore headsets in a private area during the 15-minute computer-assisted session, which asked about ARA and other forms of violence, demographics, and healthcare.

Low-frequency cyber dating victimization was defined as abuse occurring a few times, whereas high-frequency abuse was defined as abuse occurring at least once or twice a month.

Results showed that 41.4% of the participants reported any cyber dating abuse during the prior 3 months (44.6% of the girls vs 31.0% of the boys); 12.6% reported that the abuse was sexual (13.7% of all the girls, 9.2% of the boys).

Abuse of a sexual nature included a partner trying to talk about sex when the participant did not want to (8% of all participants, 8.8% of the girls, 5.5% of the boys), asking the participant to do something sexual (8%, 9.1%, and 4.2%; respectively), and publicly sharing a nude or seminude photo of the participant (1.5%, 1.3%, and 2.1%, respectively).

Significantly more female than male participants also reported nonsexual cyber dating abuse (40.1% vs 28.9%, respectively; P = .02). This included repeatedly trying to find out where the participants were or who they were with (30.9% of the girls vs 20.5% of the boys, P = .01), as well as making mean, hurtful, threatening, or aggressive comments and spreading rumors.

A total of 69% of the respondents who reported sexual cyber dating abuse also reported nonsexual abuse. They were also significantly more likely to report sexual ARA victimization compared with those who had no sexual cyber dating abuse (18.1% vs 6.4%, respectively; P = .01) and were significantly more likely to report sexual victimization by a nonpartner (36% vs 10%, respectively; P < .01).

Novel Finding

The adjusted odds ratio (AOR) of physical or sexual ARA associated with high cyber dating abuse was 5.4 when compared with no cyber dating abuse (95% confidence interval [CI], 4.0 - 7.5); it was 2.8 for low cyber dating abuse (95% CI, 1.8 - 4.4). Both amounts of cyber abuse were also significantly associated with nonpartner sexual assault (high: AOR, 4.1; 95% CI, 2.8 - 5.9; low: AOR, 2.7; 95% CI, 1.3 - 5.5).

"Nonpartner sexual violence victimization is a particularly novel finding that suggests cyber dating abuse may be occurring in the context of social networks that involve greater sexual risk or that [it] may increase vulnerability to sexual violence more generally," write the researchers.

There was also a significant association for the girls between high and low cyber dating abuse and reproduction coercion (AOR, 5.7 and 3.0, respectively), as well as contraceptive nonuse (AOR, 4.1 and 1.8, respectively).

Overall, the findings "are particularly salient for health care providers and health educators working in clinical or school-based settings," write the investigators. "Providers need to be aware of the extent to which cyber dating abuse may be associated with sexual behavior, other forms of partner abuse, and with nonpartner sexual violence."

They add that it is important to talk specifically about these issues with adolescent patients.

"Educating youth about what constitutes cyber dating abuse and offering strategies on how to manage technology to reduce risk for such abuse may be helpful intervention components to implement," the researchers write.

The study authors have reported no relevant financial relationships.

Pediatrics. Published online November 17, 2014. Full article

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