When I entered middle school in the early '70s, I remember being shocked the first time I witnessed a pair of classmates kissing passionately in the hallway.
Sure, all of us were experiencing raging hormones. We were in the midst of our first "real" crushes, with the ecstasy of first kisses and the heartbreak of unrequited love. But middle-school relationships were mostly child's play.
Fast-forward to 2012. A study published last week by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that more than a third of the 1,400 seventh-grade students surveyed reported being the victim of psychological dating violence such as being called names or told they are worthless, or having a partner insist they don't spend time with other people.
Nearly one in six said they'd been a victim of physical dating violence. And, in a category that didn't exist when we were growing up, nearly one in three said they'd been prey to what the study calls "electronic dating aggression."
Sadly, dating violence isn't a new phenomenon. But, according to Mindy Perlmutter, director of education at the Nassau County Coalition Against Domestic Violence, dating abuse is rearing its ugly head earlier than ever before.
"Even in late elementary school, kids are saying they are 'in a relationship' or 'hooking up,' " says Perlmutter. "And because these types of relationships are starting so young, abusive dating behavior has also begun to manifest earlier than even a decade ago."
What accounts for this rush to grow up and be part of a couple? Although we can laugh at the fact that some '50s-era parents feared that Elvis and his shaking pelvis would corrupt young people, it's foolish to deny that our children are learning unhealthy messages from some of the music, movies, TV and other forms of popular culture they're exposed to regularly.
Take the immensely popular Twilight series, which has many fans younger than 10. Hero Edward is violent and controlling; he throws his girlfriend, Bella, through a glass table and threatens suicide if he ever loses her. Worse yet, after they consummate their marriage, Bella accepts that being bruised -- "decorated with patches of blue and purple" -- is just the price of loving a vampire, and she assures Edward that he shouldn't feel bad about hurting her.
Maybe it's in a vampire's nature to be violent (my knowledge of vampires is limited) but the message such fantasy relationships convey to young minds is anything but natural. Given their developing concepts of love and their desire to fit in, it's not surprising that middle-schoolers might believe that jealousy and possessiveness are signs of devotion rather than control. What 11-year-old wouldn't deem it romantic to be told, "I'd rather die than lose you"?
Schools can play an important role, too. But many programs that address dating violence and encourage healthy relationships -- including one Perlmutter ran in most Nassau middle schools -- have been cut. And budget restrictions aren't likely to loosen anytime soon.
The good news from the seventh-grader study was that nearly three-quarters of those surveyed said they talk to their parents about dating and teen dating violence. But that kind of open communication becomes less frequent as kids move into high school -- right as the risk of abusive relationships increases. That makes it even more important that we take our heads out of the sand and talk frankly with our youngsters about these issues -- while we still have their attention.
Jenna Kern-Rugile lives in East Northport.