Safeguarding Teenage Intimate Relationships – Connecting online and offline contexts and risks
Current research on Interpersonal Violence and abuse (IPVA) in young people’s relationships has primarily focused on face-to-face forms of violence and abuse. Few national or international research findings have addressed the incidence and impact of new technologies, including social networking sites, on young people’s IPVA experiences. New technologies may compound incidence and impact of IPVA in young people’s relationships. How technological innovation, and young people’s integrated use of new technologies in their everyday lives, impact on their experiences of IPVA remains underexplored. The STIR European project (2013-2015) aimed to bridge this gap.
The specific research objectives were to:
- Map relevant policy, practice and knowledge on IPVA in young people’s relationships within each of the five European partner countries (Bulgaria; Cyprus; England; Italy; Norway).
- Measure the incidence, impact, and the risk and protective factors associated with online and offline IPVA in young people’s relationships, including ‘sexting’.
- Include young people’s IPVA experiences and views, including the role of new technologies, to enhance and inform the development of European prevention and intervention responses.
- Develop a virtual resource in each partner language directly accessible through the STIR website and also via a downloadable app. The resource was developed with young people for young people and provides awareness raising, research findings and signposts for appropriate sources of help in each country.
STIR was based on a four stage mixed-method approach:
- Stage 1: Expert workshops. In each country partners, on two occasions convened a group of national experts to identify what was known about IPVA in young people’s intimate relationships in each country, and to identify relevant policy and practice developments
- Stage 2: A school-based confidential survey of 4,564 young people aged 14-17 year-olds was completed in 45 schools.
- Stage 3: Semi-structured interviews with 100 young people, using an interview schedule and vignettes were completed.
- Stage 4: Development of an online resource and a downloadable app for young people.
A young people’s advisory group was convened in each country to comment on all aspects of the study. The groups helped to develop the survey, interview schedule, vignettes and the online resources.
Survey Sample: 4564 young people took part in the survey. The sample included approximately equal numbers of young women and young men with a lower proportion of young women in the Italian sample. All countries aimed to include 1000 participants except Cyprus where, due to the smaller population size, the target was half this amount, which was subsequently exceeded. The majority of young people (72%) reported having a boyfriend or girlfriend. All the subsequent survey findings are based on the 3277 young people who said they had been in a relationship.
As part of Policy Hub Scotland’s conversation around Child Internet Safety and Education and Child Welfare, this paper will focus on the survey findings relating to IPVA and new technologies.
IPVA Incidence Rates
The survey explored four different types of IPVA: Online Emotional Violence; Face-to-Face Emotional Violence; Physical Violence and Sexual Violence (pressure and physical force). We also asked about sending and receiving sexual messages. Each type of violence was measured by a range of questions. For the results we have combined all the questions for each form of violence victimisation to give an overall incidence rate for each country (see Table 1).
Table 1 Gender and Incidence Rates for Experiencing IPVA
Online Emotional Violence
Online forms of emotional violence were measured by six questions. In the survey, respondents were asked ‘Have any of your partners ever done any of these things using a mobile phone, computer or tablet:
- Put you down or sent you any nasty messages?
- Posted nasty messages about you that others could see?
- Sent you threatening messages online or by mobile phone?
- Tried to control who you can be friends with or where you can go?
- Constantly checked-up on what you have been doing / who you have been seeing – for example, by sending you messages or checking your social networking page all the time?
- Used mobile phones or social networking sites to stop your friends liking you – for example, pretending to be you and sending nasty messages to your friends?
The overall rate for experiencing some form of online violence was around 40% for both young women and young men in each country. However, young men in England and Norway reported much lower levels of online violence compared to young people in other countries (around 23%).
Controlling behaviour (measured by ‘control who you can be with…’) and surveillance (measured by ’constantly checked up on…’) were the most commonly experienced forms of online violence for both young women and young men.
Most young people who experienced violence reported both online and offline forms of violence.
In the survey for each form of violence we asked respondents: How did this behaviour make you feel? Possible responses included feeling: upset, unhappy, humiliated, annoyed, scared, angry, bad about themselves, shocked, embarrassed (negative feelings); felt loved, wanted, good about themselves, thought it was funny, (affirmative feelings) or no effect (see table 2).
Table 2 Online violence and Impact
Proportionally, across the four forms of violence, girls in each country provided the highest rates of affirmative/no effect responses in relation to their online experiences, with Italy stating the highest affirmative only impact (34%) and Norway the lowest (8%). The impact pattern for boys IPVA experiences was more varied both by type of violence and also by country dynamics. Focusing on online forms of violence – although more boys than girls in each country sample provided an affirmative only/no effect response, on average around half of boys reported some form of negative impact.
Sending and receiving sexual images and text messages
Although there was little difference in young people’s access to mobile phones, substantial variations existed between countries in relation to sending and receiving sexual images and messages. The highest rates for both sending and receiving intimate images were in England and the lowest in Cyprus. Between 6% and 44% of young women and 15% to 32% of young men said they had sent a sexual image or text message to a partner (see Table 3). Similar proportions of young women, between 9% and 49%, and a slightly higher proportion of young men, 20% to 47%, reported receiving a sexual image or message from a partner. The highest rates for both sending and receiving were in England and the lowest in Cyprus. In all countries it seems that this was often a reciprocal activity, as approximately two-thirds of young people who had sent an image or message had also received one.
Table 3: Sending and receiving sexual images and text messages
Many participants reported an affirmative only impact to sending images or messages, with between 41% and 87% of young women and 75% to 91% of young men stating this. However, between 13% and 59% of young women and 9% and 25% of young men recorded some form of a negative impact after sending sexual images or text message. Girls in England, Norway and Italy were more likely to report a negative impact.
Sharing Sexual Images and Text Messages
Between 9% and 42% of young women in four of the five countries reported that a message they sent was shared with other people by their partner. 42% of young women in England reported that a sexual image or message they had sent to a partner had been sharedCyprus was not included due to low numbers. In contrast, only 9% to 13% of young men reported this. Young women in England were most likely to report that a photo or message had been shared (42%), followed by Norway (27 per cent).
Due to low numbers, we can only examine sharing of messages in England and Norway. Our findings indicate that young women whose images or messages were shared with other people by their partners were more likely to report a negative impact. 97% of young women in England whose image or message was shared also reported a negative impact.In England and Norway, nearly all young women whose image or message was shared also reported a negative impact (97 per cent in England and 83 per cent in Norway). Nevertheless, although very few Italian young women in the survey reported their images had been shared, a high proportion (43%) reported a negative impact from sending a sexual image or text message.
Associations with Relationship Violence and Abuse
In all countries, young people were more likely to have sent a sexual image or text message if they were experiencing violence or control in their relationships.
Young people who reported experiencing IPVA were at least twice as likely to have sent a sexual image or text compared to young people who had not experienced IPVA (see Table 4). This was the case for all types of violence, irrespective of gender.
Table 4: Associations between sending images and violence
Reasons for Sending Sexual Images and Messages
The most common reasons for sending a sexual image or message were:
- because a partner asked them to send it (between 32% and 56% of young women and between 20% and 44% of young men)
- to feel sexy or flirtatious (between 36% and 51% of young women and between 21% and 57 % of young men)
- as a joke (between 14% and 47 % of young women and between 17% and 39% of young men).
In England, some young women reported sending sexual images and text messages to prove their commitment to a partner (43%) and because they were pressured by a partner (27%).
- This is the first study of IPVA in young people in the general population across European countries. The findings show high levels of online and offline IPVA among young people in all the countries studied and this will compromise their health and wellbeing both in the present and in the future. .
- The strong association between online and offline forms of IPVA in young people’s relationships clearly demonstrates the inter-connection between these forms of violence and control in the lives of young people across a number of European countries. Online abuse should not be tackled in isolation but as part of a whole strategy addressing all forms of IPVA in young people.
- Many young people gave affirmative only responses when asked about the impact of sending a sexual image. We must therefore be careful not to provide moralising responses to activities young people view as primarily pleasurable.
- However, when coercion was involved girls provided primarily negative responses, as they did if their image had been shared. In contrast few boys reported any negative associations. This highlights the importance of understanding the context in which images are being sent rather than viewing all such activities as primarily damaging.
The STIR European project was funded by DAPHNE III European Commission. More information can be found via the project website – http://www.stiritup.eu/
England: Christine Barter, Marsha Wood, Nadia Aghtaie, Cath Larkins, Nicky Stanley
Bulgaria: Georgi Apostolov, Luiza Shahbazyan
Cyprus: Susana Pavlou, Stalo Lesta
Italy: Noemi De Luca, Gianna Cappello
Norway: Carolina Øverlien and Per Hellevik
Alba Lanau (University of Bristol) provided statistical support to the project team.