The fight between 21-year-old singer Rihanna and her boyfriend, 19-year-old singer Chris Brown, had one positive result: it’s jumpstarted a national dialogue on teens and dating abuse, also known as interpersonal violence.

Celebrities aside, dating violence is astoundingly common among adolescents. In a study of high school students in Los Angeles and San Francisco, researcher Antoinette Davis, MPP, of the National Council on Crime and Delinquency asked respondents if they had been deliberately hit, slapped or physically hurt by a boyfriend or girlfriend in the prior 12 months.  She found 33% of the young women surveyed had been victimized by a boyfriend. Unlike previous studies, this one didn’t find statistically significant differences between the prevalence of violence and the respondent’s race or ethnicity: whites, blacks, Asians and Latinas reported similar levels of abuse. The researcher claims that the community resources and cultural ability to openly address this type of violence was different for each ethnic group, and this may possibly have caused different reporting rates in the past.

No doubt, many incidents are not reported. Nonetheless, the statistics paint a grim picture. According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) about 1 in 5 adolescent girls is a victim of dating violence. Combining teens and adults, the agency estimates that 5.3 million interpersonal violent attacks occur in the U.S. each year, with over 2 million injuries sustained, and 1,300 women killed.  The CDED also says that exposure to physical or sexual interpersonal violence has repercussions on girls well into adulthood. 

Young women who are the victims of interpersonal violence typically report exposure to other kinds of violence as well. These women were more likely than their peers to get into fights at school, to carry a weapon in school, to be threatened or injured by a weapon at school, or to stay away from school altogether due to fears for their safety.  These same girls had sexual assault rates that were four times higher than their peers.

Not surprisingly, this negative impact carries over to other areas. Teen girls who were victims of interpersonal violence were at a higher risk of using tobacco, alcohol and marijuana compared to girls who had not been abused. They also attempted suicide at over twice the rate of their peers.

Early prevention and education are the keys to combating this problem. According to Ms. Davis’ report, despite interpersonal violence being so widespread, many teens feel isolated, or don't even know that what they're experiencing is abuse. The report states, “A youth that does not understand that he or she is suffering abuse or perpetrating it is much less likely to reach out for help. Educating teens about the issue is essential.”

If you suspect a loved one is a teen victim of violence, check out the web site of Love is Respect, or phone the 24-hour helpline, (866) 331-9474. Or try the National Domestic Violence Hotline online or at 800-799-SAFE (7233).