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Cyber dating abuse 'common,' Children's scientists find

| Sunday, Nov. 16, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Officer David Artman routinely talks to kids in the Baldwin-Whitehall School District about being safe.

Fifth-graders learn about cyberbullying. Eighth graders learn about domestic violence. But so far, he said, there isn't a lesson for how the two come together — when teens use social media, texting and other technology against their boyfriends and girlfriends.

“These kids are always looking down. Their thumbs are always moving,” said Artman, a Drug Abuse Resistance Education presenter.

Experts call it cyber dating abuse, and in research published Monday in the journal Pediatrics, a group of scientists at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh have found that more than 40 percent of teens who go to school health clinics seeking care said they are being cyber stalked, harassed via text messages and blackmailed with nude photos, not by their peers, but by their boyfriends and girlfriends.

Dr. Elizabeth Miller, the lead author of the study, and Chief of the Division of Adolescent Medicine at the children's hospital, said their findings about cyber dating abuse should serve as a warning to doctors and school health professionals.

“These experiences are common to patients we serve,” she said. “Adolescents who come in your front door and into your clinic space are at higher risk.”

Miller conducted the study with more than 1,000 high school students between ages 14 and 19 who used school health clinics at eight schools in Northern California.

Three-quarters of the students who answered were female. Most of the students were non-white. About half said they were in a serious relationship.

The students used a computer to answer a series of questions about their dating lives and online communication in a three-month period during the 2012-13 school year.

They were asked if their partners had ever threatened them via text message or social media, whether their boyfriends or girlfriends ever pressured them to send nude photos and whether their partners ever shared those photos.

They were asked whether the people they were dating had ever relentlessly messaged them to ask where they were or who they were with.

The most common answer was girls reporting that their partners used social media, texting and messaging to keep tabs on them. One-third of girls had received a request from their partner to send sexual images.

“It's another mechanism for enacting abuse and control,” she said of texting, social media and messaging.

Another finding was that teens who said they were experiencing cyberbullying at the hands of their partners were more likely to experience physical violence from those same partners. They were more likely to be having unsafe sex, and in some cases, Miller said, teenage girls in the survey reported that their partners were trying to force them to get pregnant.

Emily Rothman, an associate professor at the Boston University School of Public Health who studies violence and adolescent health, said more than half of teens have used psychological abuse in a relationship. Sometimes, it's to control their partners, she said.

“It's really horrific to think we have a generation of young people who thinks it's normal to treat people this way,” she said.

Rothman was not involved in this study.

Based on their findings, Miller said that the school clinics, which don't exist in many Western Pennsylvania school districts, are the first line of defense in discussing appropriate online behavior with teens.

Rothman said that sports coaches can be good advisers about healthy relationships online and that schools should be teaching students about healthy relationships and technology, even if they won't talk about sex.

Rebecca Dick, who coordinated the study, said their long-term plans include providing doctors with tools to talk to teenage patients about their experiences and alternatives.

Megha Satyanarayana is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7991 or megha@tribweb.com.

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