While some teen years can be a time for puppy love, for more than a few it can be an unknowing introduction to dating violence.
February is Teen Dating Violence Prevention Awareness Month and local domestic violence advocacy groups have taken the time to bring more awareness to the issue.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey and the National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence Survey, nearly 1 in 11 female and approximately 1 in 15 male high school students report having experienced physical dating violence in the last year.
The CDC describes teen dating violence as a type of intimate partner violence between two people in a close relationship with physical or sexual violence, psychological aggression or stalking behavior.
“We spend so much time talking about adult intimate partner violence but we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about where do these individuals first get exposed to intimate partner violence,” said Rebecca Headings, primary prevention specialist with Samaritan House in Virginia Beach, an organization for domestic abuse recovery.
Headings said she has spent time this month going into schools and speaking with local news organizations to spread awareness about the issue of teen dating violence. This type of abuse can look different than with adult domestic abuse because teenagers are participating and experiencing relationships differently than adults, she said.
For example, many teenagers in abusive relationships are experiencing the abuse over social media, said Anika Virgin, director of York County’s Victim Witness Assistance Program. She said abusive partners tend to be more controlling over their significant other’s social media accounts, posts and passwords.
Often, abusive partners will also use social media as a way to keep tabs on their partner through constant messaging and location services.
“Social media is always there, 24/7, kids can’t escape it,” Virgin said. “You can’t really get away from it because every time [an abusive partner] messages you or posts about you, they’re back in your mind.”
Headings said teenagers can be particularly susceptible to dating violence because they have only just started understanding the world of romantic dating.
In presentations at schools, Headings said she runs through scenarios with students to help explain what is and isn’t part of a healthy relationship.
That means explaining the reasons why partners stay in an abusive relationship, too, either by rationalizing abusive behaviors as acts of love or because they want to maintain the status they’ve earned by dating a particular person.
“As people, we’re social beings and [often] we are taught to give the other person the benefit of the doubt,” Headings said. “If you’ve never been in that situation before, it just solidifies how it happens.”
Virgin said dating violence issues have started to become an important topic for the teen LGBTQ community as well. She said it can be harder to recognize that violence sometimes because it’s not as expected or it’s more accepted as normal behavior.
Additionally, Headings said in the past few years more males have started to seek services from Samaritan House.
“The teens I’ve talked with don’t seem to be as rigid in their gender stereotypes now,” she said. “Men obviously have a lot of issues coming forward because of the judgement faced when a guy falls victim to a woman, but that’s starting to change.”
Virgin said the awareness outreach through Victim Witness Assistance is just one way to spread word about Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month but there are other services as well.
The Newport News Police Department has posted several images about signs of domestic violence among teens on its Facebook page to raise awareness about Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month.
“Social media is just one of those places we can do that,” said Sarah Ketchum, spokeswoman for the department. “It’s important to do what we can to help people in these situations as well as educate them.”
When asked if the department planned other initiatives besides the social media campaign, Ketchum noted the several initiatives the department had in October for Domestic Violence Awareness Month.
She said the department may have other “things” in the future but nothing is planned at this time.
The Newport News Police Department is still in the process of hiring a domestic violence liaison.
If you or someone you know is a victim of teen dating violence, resources are available through the York County Victim Witness Assistance Program online or by calling 757-890-3402. The Samaritan House in Virginia Beach can be reached online or by calling 757-631-0710.