Physical and sexual violence in dating among adolescents: How effective are prevention programs?

Studies show that physical and sexual violence often occurs in teen dating relationships: according to current data, the incidence is around 20 percent for physical violence and around 10 percent for sexual violence. A research team at the University of Klagenfurt has recently conducted a meta-analysis to investigate the extent to which prevention programs work. The results have now been presented in JAMA Pediatrics.

When discussing physical violence, the researchers mean acts such as hitting, slapping or pushing a dating partner. Sexual violence refers to forcing (or attempting to force) a dating partner to perform sexual acts to which the partner does not consent. The consequences of physical and sexual violence can be far-reaching, as study author Heather Foran, a professor at the Department of Psychology, explains: “In the short, medium, and long term, there can be consequences for the health of those affected, including depression, suicidality, substance abuse, and more.” That’s why many prevention efforts start in the teens.

Heather Foran and postdoctoral associate Antonio Piolanti conducted a systematic meta-analysis of 18 studies that included data from 22,781 adolescents. The average age of the adolescents studied ranged from 12.2 to 17.6 years. 13 of the prevention interventions studied were offered in school settings, and 5 were implemented in other contexts.

Antonio Piolanti comments on the results as follows: “We see that the prevention programs can be effective in preventing physical violence. Sexual violence seems to be more complex: Here we don’t see a significant effect from the interventions.” From this, the study authors said, it can be concluded that sexually aggressive behavior in the dating setting  might be more complex to prevent and additional studies are needed.

“One success factor in certain programs could be parents,” Piolanti further explained. For example, it would appear that interventions involving parents can achieve significantly higher reductions in violence. He said similar findings have been seen in other studies of family-based programs that focus on preventing health risks in adolescents. “Parents typically don’t talk to their teenage children about dating violence. But if they are involved in prevention programs, that could be helpful,” Antonio Piolanti concludes.

Also important for the success of prevention programs, he says, is the right focus, for example on those young people who have a history of violence. Age is also crucial: if you start too early, dating is still outside the realm of young people’s lives. But if young people are 15 and older, the programs may be more effective.

With their study, Antonio Piolanti and Heather Foran present important new findings on the subject. At the same time, they emphasize: “We need additional research to also learn more about prevention in teen dating violence. Overall, more knowledge also moves us forward in developing new programs.”

Piolanti, A. & Foran, H. (2021). Efficacy of Interventions to Prevent Physical and Sexual Dating Violence Among Adolescents. JAMA Pediatrics, (online first).