Where’s the romance? York researcher studies dating violence

With Valentine’s Day approaching, it appears that young love may not be all that it’s cracked up to be. York Professor Jennifer Connolly takes a sobering look at the dark side of some teenage romances.

Connolly has been involved in three major studies examining violence in high-school dating, and the results she’s found are disturbing. "A shocking 30 per cent of adolescents will have experienced aggression in a romantic relationship within the last six months," she says.

Right: Thirty per cent of teens will have experienced aggression in a romantic relationship within the last six months

Director of York’s LaMarsh Centre for Research on Violence & Conflict Resolution, Connolly has focused her energies recently on trying to uncover the why of teens’ aggression in their relationships. She says the aggression is mostly relatively minor (e.g. teasing, gossiping, pushing, grabbing), but says there is some more severe aggression as well (e.g. hitting, slapping, slamming someone against a wall).

"Our hypothesis is that there is some correlation in interpersonal aggression across the life span. We have already seen evidence that in Grades 5 to 8, kids who bully are more likely to report aggression in romantic relationships. In fact, those earlier research findings are partly what sparked our current study of high-school students." 

Left: Jennifer Connolly

Connolly now wants to know if that correlation continues into high-school dating couples and beyond. A cross-national study she undertook in 2005, in collaboration with an institute in Rome, dealt with teens in Canada and Italy. Connolly said her research team wanted to know what was happening with teen romances in other countries, "and we discovered the amount of aggression was about equal in both."

Connolly, with York colleague Debra Pepler and several other co-investigators, carried out research in three Canadian cities, studying over 2,500 high-school students who have parental approval to be involved in the research project.

"We want to understand why adolescent dating couples will sometimes resort to aggression when they get into conflict situations. Boys and girls of this age in equal numbers tell us they have not only experienced receiving aggression, but have also given it. Why is this happening?" asks Connolly.

"The causes are likely to be found in patterns of interaction established in prior relationships, as well as in the societal context."

Right: A chart highlighting the frequency of dating aggression in Canada and Italy

So far, Connolly has focused on two main roots: media violence and peer group aggression. "These in turn can shape teens’ attitudes to be more tolerant of the use of aggression in response to relationship problems."

Teens are faced with violence all the time through various forms of media. According to Connolly, over 70 per cent of adolescents identify with the image, style and behaviour of their favourite characters in TV shows and movies and of their most-admired musicians. Slightly more say their favourite programs, films, music, video games, Web sites and magazines contain violent content.

In fact, 52 per cent of students interviewed believe teens are influenced by the media in their dating and sexual relationships. "Students who say they are aggressive in romantic relationships are more likely to say they consume higher levels of aggressive media content," says Connolly.

Left: A model showing the causes of dating aggression

"Adolescents in peer groups that have high levels of aggression tend to carry that aggression into romantic teen relationships, too. And we also see that bullying in the early years has a role to play. Both of these influences are indirect and lead to romantic aggression through teens’ attitudes of the acceptability of aggression as a means of resolving conflict."

Connolly says, although the study isn’t looking at a teen’s home life as a predictor of later aggressive tendencies, other research shows there is a chain of events that leads to dating violence, and that families with high levels of hostility or aggression are part of the chain.

When the research is complete and the data analyzed, Connolly hopes to find ways to prevent dating violence. At the moment, her focus is on evaluating a youth-led high-school program to prevent violence between peers.

For more information about Jennifer Connolly, click here.

This article was written for YFile by Cathy Carlyle.