Tackling teen relationship violence on TV

Research into violence within teenage intimate relationships has highlighted the importance of challenging the attitudes and behaviours that foster an acceptance of abusive relationships as early as possible.

“Do you make your girlfriend weak at the knees... because she’s scared you’ll hit her?”

This was one of several tough questions directed at teenagers in two recent government-funded media campaigns incorporating TV, cinema, outdoor and online adverts.

The powerful campaigns reached nearly three million 13- to 18-year-old TV viewers1, challenging their attitudes and helping them to recognise abuse in their relationships.

The first £2 million campaign was launched in February 2010 by the Home Office in response to NSPCC-funded research2 led by Christine Barter, Senior Research Fellow at Bristol’s School for Policy Studies.

As the first large-scale study in Great Britain to provide a detailed picture of the incidence and impact of violence within teenage intimate relationships, Barter’s team surveyed 1,350 teenagers from eight schools in England, Scotland and Wales and conducted in-depth interviews with 91 young people.

A quarter of girls aged 13 to 17 reported that they had experienced physical violence from a boyfriend and a third had been pressured into unwanted sexual acts.

The alarming findings of this landmark study were reinforced by follow-up research3 from Barter’s team entitled “Standing on my own two feet”. Focusing on girls and boys from disadvantaged backgrounds, the report found that they appeared to accept violence as a normal, although unwanted, part of a relationship.

With 75 per cent of girls and 50 per cent of boys reporting that they have experienced some form of emotional abuse in relationships, the study suggests levels of violence in teenage relationships may be much higher than previously thought. Fourteen-year-old Jo said her boyfriend had, “only hit me in the face once. He used to push me down the stairs and stuff though.”

Barter says, “Tragically, control and violence seem to be so prevalent in these relationships that girls are unable to recognise its impact – it is an everyday happening”.

Within the wider political agenda of tackling domestic abuse, the research has highlighted the importance of confronting the issue at an early stage which the government is now addressing through campaigns such as this.

Home Office Minister, Lynne Featherstone said: “We need to challenge the attitudes and behaviours that foster an acceptance of abusive relationships by intervening as early as possible.”

The Home Office commissioned a further £1.5 million campaign in September 2011 to help teenagers recognise abusive behaviour before it escalates into physical violence. Challenging them to identify controlling behaviour and to reconsider their own attitudes about acceptable behaviour in relationships, the adverts directed young people to the website thisisabuse.direct.gov.uk.

Teenagers can still visit this website to find information, seek help and chat with peers.

This research continues to inform developments in government policy4 and initiate new tools and ideas for child welfare practice including a new Schools Service launched by the NSPCC which educates children and young people about abusive behaviour in relationships, and an award-winning film entitled “Crush” commissioned by the Scottish government which is now included in teaching packs available to all schools in Scotland5.

As Shona Bruce from the Reduce Abuse project in West Dunbartonshire puts it, “We regularly quote from the research when delivering sessions to young people on teen abuse, as hearing other young people's voices is a powerful method of raising awareness.”

Key facts

  1. Some key statistics from the Home Office for the initial campaign that ran from 15 February until 21 March 2010
    • Reach: 2.9 million young people had the opportunity to see the TV adverts equating to 60 per cent of the 13-19 year old audience. (This figure relates to advertising exposure not the number who engaged with or recalled the adverts).
    • Awareness of campaign and its messages: Spontaneous awareness doubled post-campaign to 44 per cent of teenagers. 92 per cent of those who were aware of advertising on the issue of abuse in relationships, spontaneously described some aspect of the campaign.
    • Reaction to the campaign: Around 90 per cent of teenagers felt that the campaign had made them think about the issue and/or encouraged them to challenge abuse in their own or friends’ relationships.
    • Online: More than 397,000 people clicked on online ads. The website thisisabuse.direct.gov.uk received 65,809 visitors during the month-long campaign.
  2. Partner exploitation and violence in teenage intimate relationships (2009). Barter, C.; McCarry, M.; Berridge, D.; Evans, K. Funder: The Big Lottery Grant/NSPCC, Safeguarding young people from exploitation and violence in their dating relationships, RG/1/010165136, 2006-2009, £174,000
  3. Funded by the NSPCC, Standing on my own two feet (2011) involved semi-structured interviews with 82 young people, 44 boys and 38 girls, from a range of agencies and organisations working with disadvantaged young people across the south-west of England. Young people were aged between 13- and 18-years-old, the majority of participants (80 per cent) were aged 15 or above.
  4. The previous Labour government’s review on the sexualisation of girls and women by Papadopolous (2010) drew heavily on the research, “Safeguarding young people from exploitation and violence in their dating relationships”. In response, the DCSF Violence Against Women and Girls Advisory Group Recommendations and Strategy (2010a, 2010b) also clearly identified teenage relationship violence as a priority in these reports and recommendations
    1. (Department for Children Schools and Families [2010a] Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) Advisory Group Final Report and Recommendations;
    2. Department for Children Schools and Families [2010b] Response to the Violence Against Women and Girls Advisory Group’s Recommendations
  5. Crush was funded by the Scottish Government and led by the national Children and Young Person's Prevention Network', a network of professionals working in the field of gender -based violence prevention. A teaching pack for all Scottish schools includes the Crush DVD and lesson plans for teachers. These reference Bristol’s research providing useful background information for staff increasing their knowledge and understanding of the issues.
  6. Christine Barter and Professor David Berridge from the School for Policy Studies acted as expert consultants for the Home Office media campaign. Based at the Centre for Family Policy and Child Welfare, Christine Barter is Senior NSPCC Research Fellow and David Berridge is Professor of Child and Family Welfare. Christine Barter also acted as a consultant on the Home Office campaign on sexual violence and teenagers, launched in March 2012 and repeated in 2013 and 2014.

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