March 24, 2021

One in three Canadian youth experiences adolescent dating violence: study

Study focused on youth in Grades 9 and 10
Deinera Exner-Cortens
Deinera Exner-Cortens

It is common knowledge that domestic violence is a major problem amongst adults, but how much do we know about violence in adolescent relationships? Dr. Deinera Exner-Cortens, PhD, MPH, of University of Calgary’s Psychology Department, along with postdoctoral scholar Dr. Elizabeth Baker and Dr. Wendy Craig, professor in Queen’s University’s Psychology Department, used data from a large national survey (the Health Behaviour in School-Aged Children, or HBSC, study) to research the issue.

Published online March 21, 2021, in the Journal of Adolescent Health, the study reports Canada’s first nationally representative data on the topic of adolescent dating violence (ADV), drawing from a sample of over 3,700 participants in Grades 9 and 10 who reported dating violence in the past 12 months. 

Our findings confirmed what we suspected. Over one in three youth experience adolescent dating violence, and ADV is a serious health problem. It’s important that we continue to develop and institute ADV prevention programs.      - Deinera Exner-Cortens

Incidents of ADV are rarely reported to the police, and victims are at risk for future victimization. ADV is defined as aggressions such as physical, sexual, psychological, stalking, and cyber dating abuse, as experienced in early- and mid-adolescent dating relationships.

The findings of this study highlight the continuing importance of prevention resources that are currently in place, such as social-emotional learning curriculum in the elementary grades, and healthy relationships programming in middle and senior high schools. Programming currently being implemented by the national Youth Dating Violence Prevention Community of Practice is supported by these findings, which will in turn be shared with all active programs. As a result, community programs like WiseGuyz, in Calgary, can also talk to new schools about why this type of program is needed.

Violence highest amongst marginalized youth

The study also revealed that the rates of violence are highest amongst marginalized youth, particularly those living in poverty, youth who identify as non-binary, racialized youth and new Canadian youth. The importance of equity-focused community-based prevention and interventions are key to stopping cycles of victimization. Prevention of ADV is also linked to improving health and well-being in the long term.

Working with organizations that are directly serving diverse communities is the best way to reach parents and youth who are vulnerable. Community organizations can also adapt existing violence prevention programs for their population.

“Consultation with communities is essential to addressing violence where it happens. Current curriculum that includes social emotional education is a good start to preventing violence before it occurs. We’ve come a long way, but we also know we need annual data collection and more resources for marginalized groups,” says Exner-Cortens.

Following on this study, Exner-Cortens emphasizes the need for annual data collection with further insight on marginalized youth, as this population is currently under-represented within ADV research.

Read the full study.

Funding for HBSC data collection was provided by the Public Health Agency of Canada. The funder had no role in the study design; collection, analysis or interpretation of data; writing of the report; or the decision to submit the manuscript for publication. Dr. Exner-Cortens’ work was supported in part by an Early Career Award from Alberta Health Services/PolicyWise. Dr. Baker is an Eyes High postdoctoral scholar.

Child Health and Wellness
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Deinera Exner-Cortens is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychology, Faculty of Arts and the Department of Psychiatry at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM). She is a member of the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute, Owerko Centre, The Mathison Centre for Mental Health Research & Education, and the O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the CSM. She is Tier II Canada Research Chair in Childhood Health Promotion.