By Cynthia Johnston
(Reuters) - Seventh-grade students have experienced alarming rates of physical violence at the hands of a romantic partner, including being shoved, grabbed, hit or kicked, a survey of middle schoolers showed on Thursday.
Nearly one in six of 1,430 students surveyed, most of whom were just 12 years old, said they had experienced physical dating violence in the past six months, while more than one in three had witnessed such violence among their peers.
Moreover, nearly a quarter said they had a friend who was violent to their partner, and a similar proportion strongly disagreed that hitting their girlfriend or boyfriend would lead to a break-up.
"Society doesn't think about these behaviors happening among middle schoolers," Shari Miller, lead researcher at RTI International, which conducted the survey, told Reuters, describing the results as "definitely alarming".
"We don't even think about them dating, never mind experiencing dating violence," she added.
The survey, conducted for the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Blue Shield of California, found that dating was common among the students surveyed, with 75 percent reporting having ever had a boyfriend or girlfriend.
But Miller said that relationships in seventh grade might often take a different form than those in later years, with students pairing off within groups more than engaging in traditional one-on-one dating scenarios.
"My sense is that kids are just learning about dating... I think this is awkward and uncomfortable and new for them," she said. "These relationships in middle school years tend to be brief. They may never go anywhere. They may sit together at lunch. They may only be boyfriend and girlfriend on Facebook."
In high schools, nearly 10 percent of students nationwide reported being physically hurt by a boyfriend or girlfriend in the past 12 months, survey authors said, citing data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But they said there was no longer-term data that followed student dating behavior from middle school into the high school years.
The middle school survey found that violence was coupled with gendered thinking. Nearly two out of every three students agreed with at least one harmful gender stereotype, including that the boy in a relationship should be smarter than the girl, or that girls try to manipulate boys into going along with what they want.
Moreover, while only 7 percent of students strongly agreed it was acceptable for a boy to hit his girlfriend under certain circumstances, half agreed that it was okay for a girl to do so.
More than a third of students said they had been a victim of psychological dating abuse, while 31 percent said they had been harassed by a boyfriend or girlfriend over electronic media.
Sexual harassment was also common, with nearly half of students reporting experiencing it in the past six months, such as being grabbed or pinched or being the subject of sexual jokes.
On the positive side, the survey found that three-quarters of students said they sometimes or often talked with their parents about dating topics, including how to tell if someone might be attracted to them.
The survey, which researchers said was not a nationally representative sample, was conducted in schools in California, Connecticut, Indiana and Michigan. It has a margin of error of 2.6 percent.
(Reporting By Cynthia Johnston; Editing by Paul Thomasch)