Online Dating Aggression Linked to Community Violence

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We’ve seen the headlines about young people being bullied by boyfriends or girlfriends through digital means such as the Internet and smartphones.

Now, the latest study from the Michigan Youth Violence Prevention Center finds that technology-delivered dating aggression is associated with the environment in which some youth are growing up, and with the likelihood that these behaviors will lead to physical dating violence.

The study, “Technology-Delivered Dating Aggression: Risk and Promotive Factors and Patterns of Associations Across Violence Types Among High-Risk Youth,” is available online in the journal Violence and Gender.

Technology-delivered dating aggression is exhibited in ways such as trying to control a partner’s behavior, tracking his or her activities and location, delivering threats, spreading rumors or sharing explicit images of the partner without permission. It goes beyond cyber aggression, which usually takes place online, to include harassing phone calls and texts.

“We found that technology-delivered dating aggression, or TDA, was prevalent among high-risk urban youth, and that it was highly associated with neighborhood violence exposure—for example, hearing gunshots, seeing drug deals, seeing someone get shot or stabbed. It was also very strongly related to physical dating violence,” said lead researcher Quyen Epstein-Ngo, a research assistant professor at the U-M Institute for Research on Women and Gender and a fellow with the U-M Injury Center.

Researchers surveyed 14-20 year-olds from two urban neighborhoods who had used a hospital emergency room in Flint, Mich. Among the youth who completed the survey, 48 percent reported technology-delivered dating aggression, 44 percent experienced dating violence (either as aggressors or victims), 55 percent reported involvement with physical nondating violence and nearly 96 percent reported community violence exposure.

Epstein-Ngo said more research is needed to determine if technology makes it easier to commit these acts of digital dating aggression or if those who do so are just more prone to these behaviors.

“For individuals who would have perpetrated dating aggression regardless of the medium, technology may just be another way to monitor, control and threaten their dating partners,” she said.

“However, there is also research to support the idea that individuals are more likely to say things online or over email that they wouldn’t say if they were face-to-face with someone. So having access to technology may also make it easier to say mean things about others or do things that we wouldn’t normally do if we were to look someone in the eye.”

The researchers found that mindfulness—defined as present-moment awareness of the sensations and stimuli that prompt these behaviors—was associated with less technology-delivered dating aggression, showing that programs to encourage youth awareness of these thoughts, emotions and impulses can be helpful.

“Parents, health care workers, school personnel and those working with youth should be aware that TDA can be very serious and may be associated with more serious problems in youths’ dating relationships,” Epstein-Ngo said.

Other U-M authors included: Jessica Roche, Maureen Walton, Marc Zimmerman, Stephen Chermack and Rebecca Cunningham. In addition to the Institute for Research on Women and Gender, Injury Center and Michigan Youth Violence Prevention Center, other U-M units represented by the researchers include the Department of Emergency Medicine, Addiction Research Center and Department of Psychiatry. Chermack also is affiliated with the Serious Mental Illness Treatment Research Evaluation Center at the VA Ann Arbor Health Care System.

Funding was provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Translational Sciences of the National Institutes of Health, U-M Injury Center, and National Institute on Drug Abuse.