Shedding a Light on Teen Dating Violence: Interview with Prevention Specialist Michelle Polek

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February was Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month, however at YWCA Clark County, raising awareness and working to end domestic abuse is a yearlong commitment. So as we enter March we thought we’d examine some of the statistics and issues surrounding teen dating violence, as well as discuss ways to prevent and educate young people (and adults) about healthy relationship behavior as part of our ongoing efforts to keep our community informed and safe.

It’s common for adults to think about teenage relationships and trivialize their significance as well as their intensity. “There is a tendency to not take teen relationships seriously – to assume that the relationship is just “puppy love” or that youth can’t or don’t cause serious harm,” said YWCA Clark County Domestic Violence Prevention Specialist Michelle Polek.

The statistics tell a different story. Nearly 1.5 million high school students nationwide experience physical abuse from a dating partner in a given year. Additionally, girls and young women between the ages of 16 and 24 experience the highest rate of intimate partner violence, at almost triple the national average. More troubling still is that only 33% of teens who were in a violent relationship ever told anyone about the abuse. In another survey, 81% of parents reported believing teen dating violence was not an issue (or admitted they didn’t know if it was an issue).

For parents, teachers, and other adults that regularly interact with teens it’s important to know the signs of surviving an abusive relationship. Some things to look out for include:

  • Changes in mood or personality
  • Isolation from peers and friends
  • Missing school or failing grades
  • Substance abuse
  • Suicidal ideation

Polek also notes that unintended pregnancy can sometimes be a sign of abuse. “Adolescent girls in abusive relationships experience high rates of reproductive coercion, which can include actions like sabotaging birth control and coercing a partner into unprotected sex.”

Social media and dating behavior

“Technology and social media aren’t just communication tools – they are fundamental shifts in the way that humans interact with one another and live their lives,” said Polek. “This change isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I don’t think that we as a society have quite figured out how to treat one another online and how to create healthy boundaries with technology.”

While teens certainly aren’t alone in engaging in unhealthy tech behaviors, teen dating violence often can include abusers exploiting social media and technology as a way of maintaining power over their partners.

Some of the ways abusers exploit technology and social media include:

  • Looking through a partner’s phone/social media feed and demanding their password
  • Expecting constant communication via text or social media apps
  • Installing software that monitors their partner’s online movements
  • Installing GPS tracking devices on partner’s mobile devices
  • Dispersing or threatening to disperse non-consensual intimate imagery (NCII, or as it’s often referred to in the media “revenge porn”) such as taking nude pictures of a survivor and spreading (or threatening to spread) them to others.

With the ability to stay in almost constant contact with a partner, young people navigating romantic relationships for the first time can feel unsure about normal expectations for healthy communication. ”The youth I work with can have trouble teasing out the difference between wanting a partner to text them back quickly and expecting someone to constantly check in with them, which is why conversations about these topics are so helpful,” said Polek.

In addition to continuing conversations around the appropriate use of social media and technology in relationships, it’s imperative that adults model and encourage healthy behavior and boundaries, and work to create healthier social norms around technology. This includes making it socially unacceptable to leak another person’s private imagery. For example, while in Polek’s prevention groups they do discuss the consequences of sending and/or spreading nude photographs, she makes sure to avoid putting the onus on young people not to take nude photographs in the first place. Shaming teens and young adults for using technology to be intimate with their partners is unhelpful and unnecessary, and also ignores the fact that survivors can often be heavily pressured by abusers into taking nude photos.

Consent and relationships in film and television

Another frequent topic that comes up in YWCA’s prevention workshops is the role media plays in portraying healthy (or in many cases, unhealthy) relationship behavior, particularly when it comes to issues of consent.

“I think that most forms of visual media do a terrible job of demonstrating consent,” said Polek. “People onscreen stare at each other longingly and somehow know that means to start making out – and then the scene will change and suddenly everyone’s clothes are off. No one is talking about the kind of protection they’re using, or checking in to make sure that their partner is comfortable and enjoying themselves. That promotes the idea that you can somehow look at someone and know what they want, which is an impossible standard! Not having experience might mean that teens are relying more on these kinds of images for thinking about what is normal and okay to do.”

Polek takes great care to avoid shaming young people for being fans of TV shows or films that are problematic, but rather encourages them to pay close attention to the messages the media they consume is sending. “Looking at specific media and talking about what it’s ‘really saying’ can be a great way to think about how our culture as a whole condones violence as well as unhealthy behavior.”

To that end she encourages parents to consider allowing their kids to watch or listen to “forbidden” media if they do so alongside the parent, so that they can discuss the messaging afterwards, and perhaps that can lead to more in-depth conversations about healthy relationship behavior on whole.

That kind of openness and dialogue are essential in helping young people discover what behaviors are acceptable and not acceptable as they start to explore intimate and romantic relationships, and providing that type of education plays a huge role in reducing and preventing teen dating violence.

“Our prevention programs emphasize working with youth because they are still forming their norms about what their relationships can and should look like,” said Polek. “ Navigating dating relationships without experience can make it difficult to know what’s normal or not, so our hope is that we can teach youth knowledge and skills about what healthy relationships look like.”