Using Music, Movies, Video Games & School Curricula, Start Strong Is Promoting Healthy Relationships


The middle school years offer key moments to educate young people and their parents about healthy relationships and teen dating violence prevention. Programs that are doing this work should meet youth where they spend time, such as in schools, and engage a range of community partners. And when these programs are effective in engaging youth as advocates and peer leaders, they can have lasting benefits.

Those are among the lessons that adolescent experts, researchers and advocates shared with representatives from diverse federal agencies at a forum at the United States Department of Justice. The “Teen Dating Violence Prevention: Why Middle School Matters” forum marked the halfway point of the four-year Start Strong: Building Healthy Teen Relationships, a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) administered by Futures Without Violence, formerly Family Violence Prevention Fund. Its goal is to prevent teen dating violence.

Two panels – one of researchers and one of Start Strong program directors – briefed a group of representatives from the Federal Interagency Workgroup on Teen Dating Violence, which represents 19 federal agencies, including the U.S. Departments of Health and Human Services, Education, and Justice and answered questions.

Researchers discussed why teen dating violence prevention messages are essential for middle school youth, and strategies to engage parents and encourage them to talk to their children about healthy relationships. “If we’re going to talk about teen dating violence prevention, we’re too late by the time youth are teenagers,” said Futures Without Violence President, Esta Soler. “We need to start talking and reaching out to youth in middle school, the time when judgment and attitudes are forming. This is why middle school matters.”

Abigail Davenport, Senior Vice President at Peter Hart Research Associates, cautioned that the best approach when working with parents is to, “prepare them, don’t scare them.”

Dr. David Wolfe, Center for Addiction and Mental Health, Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Toronto, discussed why the middle school years are so important, and Dr. Jonathan Cohen, Center for Social and Emotional Education, discussed social norms and academic achievement. More resources are available here.

Representatives of Start Strong programs from Idaho, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Texas discussed the innovative ways they are reaching teens. Start Strong Boston is using music to reach teens and has created a scorecard to rate Top 40 songs. Start Strong Idaho created a series of events around the “Eclipse” premiere and encouraged teens to join a “Campaign for a Third Choice.” Start Strong Rhode Island has created a 3-D, immersive video game designed to help teens learn about healthy relationships. Barri Rosenbluth of Start Strong Austin discussed how to embed healthy relationships into school policies to create positive change. Sherry Iverson of Start Strong Idaho discussed the role that health care providers can play in helping youth build healthy relationships.

A 2008 National Council on Crime and Delinquency Focus found that approximately one in three adolescent girls in the United States is a victim of physical, emotional or verbal abuse from a dating partner – a figure that far exceeds victimization rates for other types of violence affecting youth.

Start Strong is the largest initiative ever funded to target 11-to-14-year-olds to promote healthy relationships as the way to prevent teen dating violence and abuse. RWJF and Blue Shield of California Foundation are investing $18 million in 11 communities across the country to identify and evaluate the most promising pathways to stop dating violence and abuse before it starts. RWJF is funding 10 sites and Blue Shield of California Foundation is funding one site in California. Futures Without Violence is the National Program Office for Start Strong.

Each Start Strong community is creating innovative prevention models that can be replicated across the country. Each community also has developed a comprehensive plan that focuses on four core strategies involving education, policy change, community outreach and cutting-edge social marketing campaigns to empower teens to develop healthier relationships throughout their lives.