With each issue, Trib+Health brings you an interview with experts on issues related to health care. Here is this week's subject:
Melissa Peskin is an associate professor of health promotion and behavioral sciences at UTHealth School of Public Health in Houston. She is the principal investigator with UT Prevention Research Center's core research project on mobilizing community partnerships for effective sexual health education in middle school. We recently spoke with her about her research on cyber dating abuse among middle schoolers.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Trib+Health: Could you give us a brief overview of why you are looking into this issue, and what your study uncovered?
Melissa Peskin: We were really interested in looking at cyber dating abuse because we've had a lot of interest in teen dating violence overall. And we've looked at this a lot among middle school youth and we know that teens start dating early, sometimes in middle school, and that the prevalence of some of these other forms of violences starts to occur during the middle school years.
So with this new form of dating violence coming around with technology — we were interested to see if this form of dating violence was also prevalent among middle school youth.
What we found was that middle school youth are engaging in all forms of dating violence — and this particular study showed us that about 15 percent of sixth grade youth had reported perpetrating cyber dating abuse at least once during their lifetime.
We were also interested in trying to understand what some of the factors [were] that were associated with cyber dating abuse among the sixth grade youth. Because if we can try to understand the factors associated [with the behavior], then we can try to design prevention programs to try to reduce cyber dating abuse before it occurs.
Trib+Health: What is "cyber dating abuse"?
Peskin: Cyber dating abuse is defined as one of 12 to 13 behaviors that occurred through technology that had to do with unhealthy relationship behaviors. We looked at things like: constant text messaging to one's partner, posting embarrassing photos or other images online, sending threatening text messages, using your dating partner's social networking account without his or her permission, spreading rumors using social networking. Things that are typically done in person, now, unfortunately, are occurring through technology as well, through social media and cell phones.
Trib+Health: Why did you study the middle school age group?
Peskin: My expertise is really with adolescents. We know more about cyber dating abuse among older adolescents, and there have been a few studies, not many actually, that have looked at the prevalence of cyber dating abuse among adolescents. A few larger studies found about 12 percent of [adolescent] youth had reported perpetrating some form of cyber dating abuse in the past year. So we do know that it is prevalent among older youth.
The purpose here was to see if it was prevalent among younger group as well. Because we do know — from dating violence literature and prevention literature in general — if we can try to intervene earlier, we're more likely to reduce occurrence later on. Being able to intervene and provide prevention programs to younger youth like middle school youth is really important for trying to prevent the later [in life] occurrence of dating violence.
We also know that cyber dating abuse is associated with other types of dating abuses. Young people who are engaging in cyber dating abuse are also typically engaging in other forms of dating abuse as well.
Trib+Health: How can parents help protect their children from this behavior?
Peskin: I think it’s really an extension of healthy relationships.
I think, overall, we do need to educate young people more about "what is a healthy relationship." That of course starts with parents talking to young people about healthy relationships and what it means to be in one, starting with friendships.
Because technology is so pervasive in adolescents' and children's lives, (that includes) extending the discussion to having a healthy relationship in the context of technology. And with technology, the other issues that it can bring.
Trib+Health: Is cyber abuse currently being addressed in schools?
Peskin: I think some schools are definitely including prevention education in their curriculum.
We know that most schools don't include evidence-based programs — programs that have been shown to be effective in terms of reducing teen dating violence and improving healthy relationships. Having those evidence based programs would be a really great step towards trying to tackle this issue.