Do teen dating violence prevention programs work?

September 07, 2022
Warning: Content may be upsetting for survivors of violence. For support, please visit:

Adolescence is a critical time of emotional, intellectual and personal development. As young people build their confidence, sense of self and begin to date, situations can arise that create stress and conflict. Approximately two thirds of teenagers report experiencing some type of dating violence—physical, emotional, or sexual abuse, stalking or verbal threats. Being subjected to violence from a dating partner as a teenager can have lasting negative physical and emotional consequences.

Simon Fraser University (SFU) PhD student Chelsey Lee investigated teen dating violence for her SFU Master’s thesis. She collaborated with Criminology Professor Jennifer Wong, whose expertise includes crime prevention and intervention, program evaluation, meta-analysis and systematic review, and intimate partner violence.

Lee and Wong reviewed dozens of studies on teen violence prevention programs to analyze their effectiveness. Most programs are delivered in middle and high schools where they reach a large audience and focus on developing healthy relationships and conflict resolution skills. As a whole, these programs appear to increase adolescents’ knowledge about dating violence behaviors and impacts, and help change attitudes and beliefs concerning dating violence. The analysis confirmed that dating violence prevention programs can be useful in helping reduce and prevent it.

Lee and Wong’s article, Examining the effects of teen dating violence prevention programs: a systematic review and meta-analysis, discussing the findings of their study was recently published in the Journal of Experimental Criminology.

We spoke with Lee and Wong about their research.

Tell us about your study findings. Is awareness of teen dating violence and attitudes towards violence improving? What is not improving?

Yes, current evaluative research suggests that prevention programs have generally achieved their desired effect at improving awareness and knowledge and changing attitudes towards dating and relationship violence. After participating in prevention programs, young people are more likely to be able to identify and define the various elements comprising dating violence and unhealthy relationships, and are less likely to endorse rape myths or show acceptance of violent behaviours. Findings regarding the impact of programs on behaviours are mixed, but show some positive trends. In general, while programs help teens become more aware of the issue, shifting their behaviours is notably more challenging than shifting their attitudes.

When it comes to bystanders, did the analysis reveal anything about the behaviour of teens who witness violence?

Only a small portion of the studies in our sample addressed bystander intentions and behaviours, which limited our ability to examine this question. Bystander behaviour in this context is not easy to measure, as it is largely dependent on teens experiencing opportunities to be an active bystander during the timeframe of the research process, which isn’t always the case. With that said, the research we reviewed does not indicate a notable program impact on increasing teens’ likelihood of intervening or their intentions to intervene if they witness violence.

You have studied these topics over the last several years, in teens and in college students. Have you noticed young peoples’ awareness and attitudes towards dating violence changing over time as they mature—or perhaps in response to societal shifts?

That’s a great question but unfortunately not something we’ve been able to examine in our research. An interesting idea for a future study might be to implement the same survey on awareness, attitudes and behaviours in the same set of schools for a multi-year period and examine changes in cohorts over time. I’ll keep that in mind for a future project!

After evaluating the literature, do you have any recommendations on how to improve teen dating violence prevention programs?

While we were able to determine if prevention programs are overall having an impact on young people’s perspectives and behaviours, it is more complicated to determine why these programs are or are not working. Program factors that may be related to outcome effectiveness are not always reported on in evaluation research, which is unfortunate when it comes to thinking about which program characteristics or components are most critical for success.

Our preliminary investigations suggest that program length is important to consider, with longer, more comprehensive programs having a stronger impact on knowledge and awareness than programs with a briefer format. In addition, program developers should consider the composition of their audience with respect to racial/ethnic diversity. Many existing programs were developed for a general population, rather than a culturally specific group, and findings suggest that these programs may not be as effective for cultural minority audiences.