The recent death of 22-year-old Gabby Petito in 2021 who was killed by her boyfriend, and the death of 23-year-old Lauren Smith-Fields who was found dead in her apartment following a date with a man she met on a dating app is highlighting the issue of dating violence and young women.
Dating violence is defined as any physical, sexual, and psychological violence in romantic and sexual relationships. Dating violence can look like many things including; hitting, being possessive, hurling insults, intimidating, isolating partners from family and friends, stalking, checking text messages without permission, using social media to hurt, embarrass or monitor them, and pressuring them for sexual contact without consent.
Young people in Canada are at the greatest risk of dating violence, with studies showing that young people between the ages of 15 and 24 make up 43% of all incidents of dating violence.[i] Dating violence starts early and is more prevalent among young women. Dating violence can begin as early as grade school, with 29% of young girls and women in grades 7, 9, and 11, reporting experiencing dating violence, compared to 13% of young boys and men.[ii]
Furthermore, a national study looking at 3,000 Canadian youth found that in the past year 12% were physically hurt on purpose by someone they were dating, 18% had a person they were dating use social media to hurt, embarrass, or monitor them, and 28% reported a dating partner tried to control them or emotionally hurt them.[iii] Among high school students, young women ages 15 -19 experience 10 times more violence in relationships than young men.
The experience of dating violence has lifelong consequences. Dating violence during youth is a strong risk factor for domestic violence in adulthood.[iv] The experience of dating violence among young women is also linked to negative outcomes in other areas such as poor educational outcomes, substance use, depression, anxiety, eating disorders, disruptive behaviours, and suicidal thoughts.[v] Dating violence has also been linked to poorer physical health and chronic health conditions such as increased blood pressure and chronic pain.
Youth are less likely to report dating violence, with only 8% informing adults or authorities after an incident. Teens do not commonly report dating violence because they are afraid or embarrassed to tell their friends and family. In some cases, teens do not think an incident is serious enough to report. In addition, sometimes youth do not report dating violence because they do not label certain behaviours as unhealthy but interpret them as acts of love.[vi]
It is important to teach young people and those around them – teachers, parents and peers – to acknowledge, understand and intervene at the first signs of violence.
Warning signs of dating violence include:
- Controlling where they go and who they are spending time with
- Threatening to hurt themselves if they try to end the relationship
- Acting jealous or getting angry for no reason
- Checking their text messages, calls and social media
- Constantly checking in on them and showing up unannounced
Looking out for warning signs is a good start, but much more is needed. A culture shift is required in making sure that youth dating violence is not minimized or accepted as a common learning experience, but understood as a serious form of violence that is habit-forming, and has lifelong implications and trauma attached to it. Adolescence and young adulthood is an important developmental period and it is important that healthy habits and messaging around dating and relationships are formed to stop the cycle of violence from teen to adulthood.
Interventions can include teaching safe and healthy relationship skills in schools. Bystander education can help teachers and peers learn how to identify and take action to stop and prevent dating violence. There is also a need for improved screening for dating violence in healthcare settings, and educational programs and information for families.
Youth dating violence is a public health issue, and it is important to have publicly funded support dedicated to effective prevention and response strategies. In Canada, there are limited services that are specialized for young people experiencing violence, in addition to a lack of policies that offer protection and clear actions on where to go and how to receive help.
[i] Statistics Canada. (2008) Police reported dating violence in Canada. https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/pub/85-002-x/2010002/article/11242-eng.htm
[ii] Price et al. (2001) Dating violence among New Brunswick Adolescents: A summary of two studies. Fredericton, Canada: Muriel McQueen Fergusson Centre for Family Violence Research, University of New Brunswick.
[iii] Exner-Cortens D, Baker E, Craig W. (2021) The National Prevalence of Adolescent Dating Violence in Canada. J Adolesc Health, 69(3): 495-502.
[iv] Persram et al., (2021 Dec 14) Development and validation of the teen dating aggression measure among Canadian youth. Front Pyschol.
[v] Taquette, S. R., & Monteiro, D. (2019). Causes and consequences of adolescent dating violence: a systematic review. Journal of injury & violence research, 11(2), 137–147.
[vi] Hébert, M., Van Camp, T., Lavoie, F., Blais, M., & Guerrier, M. (2014). Understanding the hesitancy to disclose teen dating violence: Correlates of self-efficacy to deal with teen dating violence. Temida : casopis o viktimizaciji, ljudskim pravima i rodu, 17(4), 43–64.