RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, NC—Bullying and sexual harassment during middle school is a predictor of teen dating violence, according to a new study by RTI International.
Researchers at RTI conducted the first-of-its-kind, multi-year study of middle school students to gauge whether bullying and sexual harassment were linked to later teen dating violence. The study, published in Prevention Science, surveyed nearly 700 students at four schools starting in the seventh grade. Each student completed four surveys over a 2-year period to indicate changes over time.
“We’re seeing bullying, sexual harassment and teen dating violence happen at alarming rates among middle school students, and that signals a need to engage adolescents in conversations about these issues much earlier than we thought,” said study author Stacey Cutbush, PhD, public health research scientist at RTI. “Because parents and teachers typically expect these relationship behaviors to develop in high school, they often delay discussing it with their children and students. Our findings show a need to discuss these issues with preteens, and establish prevention programs in middle school.”
The study, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, also examined how other factors, including gender, race/ethnicity, and alcohol, contributed to teen dating violence. Among the findings were that girls who bully others are more likely to commit teen dating violence later in middle school than girls who do not bully, and boys who sexually harass others are more likely to engage in teen dating violence later in middle school than boys who do not sexually harass others
While the study results are statistically significant, researchers caution that results may not be generalizable to all middle school students nationally. Still, the results can be used to inform prevention efforts to reduce or eliminate teen dating violence by targeting bullying and sexual harassment earlier in adolescence.
This study contributes to a larger collection of research into the relationships among bullying, sexual harassment, and teen dating violence. While other studies have found significant links, those studies largely looked at whether aggressive behaviors occurred simultaneously. This is the first study to evaluate those links over a long period of time among middle school students and identify behaviors that precede teen dating violence.