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WEDNESDAY, Nov. 23, 2016 (HealthDay News) -- About one out of seven children in 6th and 9th grades has been a victim of stalking, potentially boosting their risk of substance abuse, dating violence and other dangers, a new U.S. survey finds.
The research doesn't confirm that being stalked makes it more likely that a teenager will do risky things or become a victim in other ways. But the findings do raise the prospect that stalking among teens is a hazard beyond the fear and danger that it creates.
"Teen stalking is a public health issue. A lot of kids are being stalked," said Dennis Reidy, a behavioral scientist with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's division of violence prevention. He is lead author of the study reporting the survey findings.
According to Reidy, little is known about the prevalence of stalking among young people in the United States. Just one study has examined the question before, he said, and it only looked at students in Kentucky.
The new study is based on a 2013 written survey of over 1,200 students -- average age 14 -- in grades 6 and 9 at 13 U.S. schools. About two-thirds of the participants were white.
The students were given basic information about stalking and then asked: "People sometimes go after relationships without realizing that the other person does not want one. How often has someone else pursued you, in order to start or continue a relationship that wasn't wanted?"
The students then answered a series of 19 questions about how often they experienced indicators of stalking, such as receiving unwanted messages online and elsewhere, being followed, being threatened or physically hurt.
The researchers then divided the students into three groups: non-victims of stalking; those who'd been exposed to stalking on a "minimal" level (a bit over one-third of boys and girls); and stalking victims.
The results showed that about 14 percent of the girls and about 13 percent of the boys had been stalking victims. Unwanted messages, such as voice mails and texts, were among the most common forms of stalking.
Stalking victims were more likely to show signs of post-traumatic stress and mood disorders (including depression), and they appeared to be less hopeful based on their answers to other questions. They also were more likely to report alcohol use, binge drinking, and violence directed at them in dating relationships. And they were also more likely to be sexually active, the findings showed.
The design of the study didn't allow the researchers to specify how much more likely stalking victims were to have these traits and engage in these behaviors compared with their peers.
But, Reidy said, "At this young age, being engaged in these types of behaviors has a bad prognosis. It does seem that these kids are going to be more likely to develop [sexually transmitted diseases] or teen pregnancy, or both, to not finish high school, and to have long-term mental health effects or physical effects if they're injured by their stalker."
What should be done?
Reidy pointed to the CDC's Dating Matters program as a good educational tool about healthy dating. And he called on parents to talk to their kids about acceptable behavior during dating. That way, he said, "their children can tell them that so-and-so is frequently emailing me, calling me, showing up places, kind of being pushy."
Schools and law enforcement can enter the picture, too. Reidy noted that restraining orders may be an option in some cases, although policies differ around the United States.
But in some cases, he acknowledged, "it's hard to tell the difference between stalking and a teen who's clumsy and awkward, and trying to seek affection."
One mental health expert noted that teen stalkers often appear more obvious than adult stalkers do.
Research in Australia has suggested that "teens prefer very direct forms of stalking -- such as phoning, texting or approaching the victim -- rather than the more subtle types of stalking we see in adults, like keeping a person under surveillance, following them or loitering near their home," said Rosemary Purcell. She is director of research at Australia's Orygen, the National Center of Excellence in Youth Mental Health.
"They [teens] also have higher rates of threatening and assaulting their victims than adults. This likely reflects issues with impulse control and the desire for instant gratification," she explained.
Purcell's advice for young people: "They should understand that it's OK -- in fact it's usually necessary -- to make it clear to the person who's harassing or pestering them that their behavior is unwanted and needs to stop."
Just trying to avoid the person doesn't work with most stalkers, she said. "So victims need to convey -- politely, but firmly -- that the behavior is unwanted. If it then continues, you can be confident that the stalker is acting intentionally, she added."
Kids should also tell an adult about what's happening, Purcell said, "so they can get another perspective on the situation, as well as some help and support."
The study was published in the December issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
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SOURCES: Dennis Reidy, Ph.D., behavioral scientist, division of violence prevention, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta; Rosemary Purcell, MPsych, Ph.D., associate professor and director, research, Orygen, the National Center of Excellence in Youth Mental Health, Parkville, Victoria, Australia; December 2016, American Journal of Preventive Medicine