Tackling teen dating violence

Teen dating violence is an epidemic. Georgians must stand together against teen dating violence to ensure the safety and prosperity of our young people.

On Nov. 18, police formally charged Amber Portwood, star of MTV’s “Teen Mom,” with two felony counts and one misdemeanor count of domestic violence and battery stemming from her attacks on ex-fiancé Gary Shirley. Court documents detail a pattern of abuse spanning one year. Amber was charged for shoving, slapping, choking, punching and kicking Gary. The felony charges were for doing so while their young daughter Leah watched nearby. Two of these incidents were taped by and aired on “Teen Mom.”

While we applaud local law enforcement’s actions in response to these attacks, we remain concerned by the ubiquity of relationship violence being portrayed as normal and leveraged as drama.

Research suggests that young people take social cues from media influences.

Sadly, the lessons learned from Amber’s behavior on episodes of “Teen Mom” is that it is OK to shout at your dating partner, it is OK to hit your partner, it is OK to kick your partner, and it is OK to belittle your partner.

And it is OK if you are watching these things happening to do nothing about it.

Here in Georgia, teen dating violence is real, and it is a serious threat to our young people. The 2009 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that one out of every six high school students in Georgia experiences physical abuse at the hands of their partner. That means one out of every six high school students in Georgia report being punched, hit or slapped on purpose by their boyfriend or girlfriend in the past 12 months.

Violent teen relationships are linked to substance abuse, eating disorders, risky sexual behavior, suicide and increased likelihood of being in an abusive adult relationship. Teens need to learn that violence in relationships, by either partner, is never acceptable. Further, as adults we need to not only teach young people how to build healthy, happy and respectful relationships, but also we must commit to setting better examples for them.

Here in Atlanta, people are rallying around young people to end this epidemic of violence. Over 70 partnering community organizations and individuals have collaborated to form Start Strong Atlanta in response to the epidemic of teen dating violence. Start Strong Atlanta as part of a nationwide effort called Start Strong: Building Healthy Teen Relationships focused on teaching 11- to 14-year-olds about healthy relationships and creating social change. Teens, parents, teachers, people of all ages, men and women are spreading the message that violence in relationships is never acceptable.

Start Strong Atlanta has just launched a social networking site for teens about developing relationships free from violence. The site, www.keepitstrongatl.org, is an interactive resource spreading the message that violence in relationships is never acceptable.

On the site, teens can dissect and discuss media influences on relationships and learn skills to build healthy relationships. Prevention is possible, but the only way we can end teen dating violence and domestic violence is by intervening early.

Dr. Melissa Kottke is an assistant professor in the Department of Gynecology and Obstetrics at Emory University School of Medicine and director of the Jane Fonda Center. Christine Agnew is the communications coordinator for Start Strong Atlanta, which is comprised of the Jane Fonda Center at Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta Public Schools, and Grady Health System’s Teen Services Program.