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Unsafe at Home: For teens, media send troubling messages

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

In talking with teen girls in abusive relationships, JoAnne Patterson used to hear that the violence evolved slowly.

The boyfriend seemed nice at the onset of the relationship, girls told Patterson, who is director of Citizens Against Spouse Abuse. If the boy had become violent on the first date, there never would have been a second.

But the stories Patterson has heard recently about teen violence are different. Boys are hitting girls on the first date and girls are accepting that kind of behavior to the extent that they continue the relationship and see the abuse as “no big deal.”

“I’ve noticed a dramatic change in females coming up now,” Patterson said. “There is such a lack of self-esteem on the part of our young ladies.”

If they grew up watching their mother abused by a husband or boyfriend, they may think abuse is normal in a relationship and there’s nothing to get upset about.

In other cases, girls place such a low value on their self worth that they tolerate abuse because they think they don’t deserve anything better. In their minds, they aren’t pretty enough or smart enough, so they feel lucky their boyfriend wants to be with them at all.

Shanna Scott, director of education and community relations at the Rape Crisis Center, said TV, movies, magazines and music are among the culprits for this change in the perception of young women.

“The media is very, very convincing. That’s their job,” she said. “There are lots of messages in music or print media that say what a healthy relationship is and how to conduct yourself in a relationship.”

In many cases those messages aren’t positive, Scott said pointing to an explicit single called “Toot It and Boot It” released by rap artist YG last year as one example. Using demeaning names for women is common in many types of media.

Television is rife with examples of domestic violence being peddled as entertainment on “reality” shows aimed at young audiences, including “Jersey Shore” and “Teen Mom.”

“Teens see this kind of behavior and they start to become desensitized,” Scott said. “They start to think it’s OK to get smacked up by your significant other. They think this is how you react.”

Added to that is a constant stream of messages that tell young women what they should look like, setting a standard that’s in many cases attainable only with airbrushing.

The inability to live up to those standards of beauty leads to low self esteem and makes girls more easily lured by men who tell them they’re beautiful and more likely to believe men who later tell them no one else would want them, Scott said.

Scott works with teens to improve self-esteem, teach them what healthy relationships are and that violence isn’t normal or acceptable.

“Healthy relationships don’t hurt,” Scott said.

But she also tells teens that physical violence isn’t the only sign of an unhealthy relationship.

“When your partner is overbearing, text-ing you every minute of the day to see where you are and what you’re doing, that’s not a sign of a healthy, lasting relationship,” Scott said. “You also need to know where your boundaries are, that you don’t have to do something to appease someone else.”

Scott regularly gives these lessons to students at Howard Adult Education Center. She also teaches group lessons for church youth groups and other groups at request.

Most teens she talks to know someone in an unhealthy relationship if they haven’t experienced one themselves, Scott said.

“But as far as reaching out for help, they’re not, because relationships as a teen are very, very important,” she added. The importance they place on relationships makes them more willing to put up with a partner’s behavior, particularly if there’s no severe physical violence.

“I just had a case where a 16-year-old girl disclosed that a guy was riding by her house all the time,” Scott said. “I told her that’s stalking and it’s another form of abuse and harassment.”

The girl saw it as merely “a little bothersome,” and opted not to take any action.

“Most of them would not do anything unless the behavior was extremely menacing,” Scott said. She tries to help them realize there might be a serious problem before it gets to that point.

CASA has similar programs for teens about violence and unhealthy relationships.

To schedule a program for teens, call the Rape Crisis Center, 545-5198, or CASA, 546-1349.

To read previous stories in the series, click here.

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