Wildly Overhyped “Tween Dating Abuse” Survey Recycled to Promote Fashion Designer’s Products and Program

Wildly overhyped “tween dating abuse survey” embellished to promote fashion designer’s products

July 13, 2008

What a disappointment! Teen Research Unlimited’s survey of 1,043 11-14 year-olds, released Valentine’s Day by fashioner Liz Claiborne, Inc., and rereleased to media hysteria in early July found very little sex and violence in younger “‘tweens” relationships–in fact, not a whole lot of relationships–despite all the culture-war panic over pop-media sexualization of that age group.

Nearly 99% of 11-12 year-olds (524 of 531) and 93% of 13-14-year-olds (477 of 512) said they had never gone “further than kissing or making out,” 98% had never felt their safety was threatened by a partner, and just 2% had experienced physical violence or sexual violence from a partner.

The headlines should have read: “Survey finds dating violence, sex rare among younger teens.” Calming results like these are terrible news for culture-nannies and groups seeking publicity and funding from fear of teens. So the exaggeration mills and journalist herd were in full stampede to make America’s 5th graders sound like a mob of brutal sluts.

“The number of tweens in abusive relationships (is) staggering,” declared the press release from Liz Claiborne Inc. on the Teen Research Unlimited survey it commissioned. “‘Horrors’ Found in ‘Tween, Teen Dating,” CBC News obediently clarioned; CNN’s and other media reports were tamely similar. The survey’s “absolutely alarming” numbers led Rhode Island attorney general Patrick Lynch to urge schools to adopt “a curriculum such as Liz Claiborne Inc.’s Love Is Not Abuse.”

Ten percent of teens had sex by age 14;” “17%…report having ‘hooked up’ with a partner;” “40% of the youngest ‘tweens, those between the ages of 11 and 12, report that their friends are victims of verbal abuse in relationships;” “69% of those sexually active at 14 have experienced abuse from dates,” Claiborne’s press release and media reports blared. Claiborne’s press statement and website openly marketed clothing and jewelry for its Love Is Not Abuse program for sale to schools with panicky embellishments: “A surprising number of young adolescents are experiencing significant levels of dating violence and abuse… One in five children between the ages of 11 and 14 (20%) say their friends are victims of dating violence and nearly half of all tweens in relationships say they know friends who are verbally abused. Alarmingly, 40% of the youngest tweens, those between the ages of 11 and 12, report that their friends are victims of verbal abuse in relationships and nearly 1 in 10 (9%) say their friends have had sex.” And on and on.

But an entirely different picture emerges when the survey itself is examined. It actually found that 98% of 11-14 year-olds said they’d never experienced physical or sexual violence from a dating partner or felt threatened even once. As for sex, just 4% of youths (including 1% of ‘tweens) reported they’d ever gone “further than kissing or making out.”

How did Claiborne turn 2% into 37% or even 72%? By rigging the survey with crude statistical shenanigans, including: (a) asking young teens if they imagined “persons your age” might be having sex or being abused by partners, and (b) defining terms ludicrously broadly. Note that what “friends” (undefined) are doing could result from one case known to many other students, or gossip, or rumors, or speculations from media reports like the ones Claiborne pushed. Imagine the results if adults were asked if they had ever heard of another grownup subjected to any kind of abuse in their marriage.

“Dating relationships begin much earlier than expected,” Claiborne states, “Nearly three in four tweens (72%) say boyfriend/girlfriend relationships usually begin at age 14 or younger. More than one in three 11-12 year olds (37%) say they have been in a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship.” But the definitions were so broad that virtually anything could be termed a “relationship,” “hooking up,” or “abuse.”

For example, the survey defined “a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship” to include not just dating, but “sitting next to each other in school,” “admitting that he/she likes the other person,” “flirting,” and “calling or texting each other regularly.” Given that spacious definition, it’s surprising that fewer than half of 11-14-year-olds said they “ever” (even momentarily) had a “relationship.”

The survey defined the ominous-sounding term “hooking up” to include “flirting,” “holding hands,” and “having a boyfriend/girlfriend.” Even so, just 17% of 11-14-year-olds had ever “hooked up.” The claim that “10% of teens have had sex by age 14” referred not to those who actually had sex, but the 9% who guessed others their age might have.

The survey’s definition “abuse” extended far beyond physical and psychological injury to include partners who “made you feel bad or embarrassed about yourself,” “nervous about doing something he/she doesn’t like,” or “tried to tell you how to dress”—even once. By these definitions, Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher “hooked up” in an “abusive relationship.” Virtually all parents, teachers, coaches, and married couples would be “abusers” of each other and youths.

Even for the minority of students broadly defined as having been in a “relationship” or “hooked up,” just 8% (4% of the total sample) reported ever “going further than kissing and making out.” The statement, “69% of all teens who had sex by age 14 said they have gone through one or more types of abuse in a relationship,” actually referred to the 3% (around 30 of the 1,043 youths surveyed) who had ever gone “further than making out” and experienced even the smallest partner negativism.

When it came to truly abusive behaviors, only tiny percentages of teens had been victimized by partners. Very few had received threatening messages or felt unsafe, and even fewer had actually experienced violence. Only 2% of 11-12-year-olds and 7% of 13-14-year-olds had ever had a partner say anything “really mean” about them using cellphones, text messages, social sites, blogs, etc., refuting the notion that technology has opened up a vast world of teenage techno-meanness. The numbers reporting any kind of sex, violence, or true abuse were so low that a couple of mistaken answers or jokers could seriously skew results.

Absurdly inflated “teen dating violence” numbers, like other panics surrounding youth, are getting wilder. Gross scare tactics win mass media attention, funding, and votes and new markets to sell programs. Unfortunately, while fanning unwarranted fear toward teenagers’ attitudes, technologies, and even mild interactions and pushing “education” as the remedy, Claiborne, reporters, and politicians obscure real, troubling causes of dating violence such as abusive parents and violent homes.

Worst of all, Claiborne blames tweens’ “early sexual experimentation” as the cause of “increased levels of teen dating violence and abuse.” However, a solid body of research indicates that childhood violence and sexual abuse, usually inflicted by parents or caretakers, is the true precursor both of early sexual activity (often with much-older “partners,” and often coerced), violence, and abuse. It is surprising that Claiborne’s press release nowhere mentions prior sexual abuse and argues simply that “education” is the answer to prevent “teen dating violence.”

Still, perhaps Lynch is right to promote education on abusive relationships. Twelve-year-olds should be teaching grownups. We need to learn how today’s younger teens—who, after all, grow up in a country in which the latest Child Maltreatment report substantiated 200,000 violent and sexual abuses inflicted on children and youths by parents in 2006; in which some 3,000 children in Rhode Island alone witness violence in their homes every year—are avoiding the bad outcomes their elders perpetrate. Why have rape and sexual assault involving younger teens dropped dramatically over the last 15 to 20 years, as FBI and National Crime Victimization Survey reports document?

True, violence remains a tragedy—among all ages. That’s why profoundly stronger ethics, good sense, and fairness rather than self-serving panics should govern interest groups’ and media treatment of young people. This latest effort to wildly exaggerate teenage problems to promote programs, books, funding, and reputations shows the need for a code of ethics and a more serious, realistic approach to preventing domestic abuses of all kinds.