For kids and teens exposed to violence at home or in the community, boys are just as likely to be seriously hurt by a romantic partner, although the risk changes with age, according to a new study.
"Most samples are not specifically high risk populations where youth are previously exposed to violence," said lead author Dennis E. Reidy of the Division of Violence Prevention at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. "Most of what we know suggests that girls are more likely to be victims of sexual violence."
The researchers surveyed more than 1,000 boys and girls ages 11 to 17 years from 35 Texas schools about dating violence and self-defense practices. Students had been referred for screening by school counselors or social workers who suspected the student had been exposed to violence, which increases the risk of teen dating violence victimization.
More than half of the kids self-identified as Hispanic or Latino, 16 percent as African American and 13 percent as white.
The students answered questions about experiencing controlling behaviors, psychological violence, physical violence, sexual violence, fear or intimidation, injury and using self-defense with romantic partners. The students ranked their experience in each category on a scale of "never" to "often."
More girls reported perpetrating psychological and physical dating violence while more boys reported perpetrating sexual violence. Girls more often reported feeling fear or intimidation than did boys.
At younger ages, boys more often reported fear and injury perpetration and sexual and injury victimization, but as age increased this pattern reversed or disappeared. By age 17, injury victimization and use of self-defense did not differ by gender, according to the results published in Pediatrics.
The study surveyed kids only once and did not follow individual boys and girls over time to see how their experiences changed, which limits the results, Reidy told Reuters Health by phone.
"Our measure of sexual violence contains more assessment of sexual coercion, less assessment of forced physical penetration," Reidy said. "That could be the reason we're seeing boys at young ages reporting more unwanted physical contact, more pressure to engage in sexual types of acts, (and) spreading of rumors."
Those experiences at this young age may contribute to maladaptive beliefs about what kinds of behaviors are normal, he said. Kids who are victims of dating violence when they are younger may grow up to perpetrate the same behavior, he said.
Parents, teachers and doctors should know that boys and girls alike can be victims and perpetrators of dating violence, Reidy said.
"From a very young age we need to talk about what is violence and how to deal properly with each other," said Pamela Orpinas of the University of Georgia in Athens, who was not part of the new study.
Kids who start dating as young as age 11 often have emotional problems, depression and other issues - dating should not start so young, she told Reuters Health.
"I think that this can inform how and when and with whom to intervene to prevent dating violence," but the results should be replicated in another high-risk population to make sure this is not one unique sample that isn't representative of all kids, Reidy said.