In graduate school, students get to immerse themselves in the research and writings that interest them most. University of Georgia doctoral student Brooke Douglas cares about adolescents and their health, including their psychological health. She read dozens of articles about their romantic relationships and discovered that a number of social scientists had settled on particular ways of thinking about the dating behavior of teenagers.
First, because many teenagers have a romantic partner, some researchers consider dating to be normative. It’s what teens do. Second, the social scientists believe that “adolescent romantic relationships are important for individual development and well-being.”
Some researchers even invoke a social clock, comparable to the better-known biological one. From that perspective, teens who engage in romantic relationships around the time that is typical of their peers are said to be “on-time” in their dating. The others are “off-time.”
Douglas had a question about that: “Does this mean that teens that don’t date are maladjusted in some way? That they are social misfits?” She decided to find out. The study she conducted with Professor Pamela Orpinas was published in the Journal of School Health in the article, “Social misfit or normal development? Students who do not date.”
Douglas and Orpinas asked teachers to assess their 10th-graders’ social skills, leadership skills, and feelings of depression. They asked the students to describe the quality of their friendships and their social relationships at home and at school; they also asked them about their feelings of sadness.
The results were straightforward: In every way, the students who did not date were doing better than the students who did date, or just as well. They had better social skills and more leadership skills. They were less likely to be depressed. These students who did not date showed no deficits whatsoever.
How the study was conducted
The authors analyzed data from the Healthy Teens Longitudinal Study, in which the same students participated every year from sixth grade through twelfth grade. The participants were selected at random from 9 middle schools in 6 school districts in Northeast Georgia. The students included girls and boys in nearly equal proportions. They were a reasonably diverse group: 48% white, 36% black, 12% Latino, 3% multiracial or other, and 1% Asian.
The key question, asked each of the 7 years, was, “In the last 3 months, have you had a boyfriend or girlfriend (someone that you dated, gone out with, gone steady with)?”
The researchers identified four patterns of dating:
No dating, or very little (16%)
On the average, these students reported dating just 1.1 time over the course of the 7 years. Some never dated at all.
Dating increased over time (24%)
These students dated infrequently in middle school, but more often in high school. On the average, they said “yes” to having a boyfriend or girlfriend 3.5 times over the course of the 7 years.
Started dating in middle school, then dated less often for the next few years (22%)
All of the students in this category were dating in 6th grade. They dated less often in 7th and 8th grade, then more so later. On the average, they reported dating 4.6 times during the study.
Frequent daters (38%)
These students answered “yes” to the question about whether they had a boyfriend or girlfriend almost every time they were asked. On the average, they reported dating 5.9 times out of the 7 times they were asked.
For this study, Douglas and Orpinas focused on the findings from the 10th graders.
One of the strengths of the study is that researchers figured out how the students were doing not just by asking them, but also by asking their teachers.
Using rating scales, the teachers evaluated each student’s:
The skills involved in “interacting successfully with peers and adults in home, school, and community” included “interest in others’ ideas, politely asking for help, complimenting others, bringing the best out of peers, and volunteering to help.”
The leadership attributes that were assessed included “being good at getting people to work together, working well under pressure, attending after-school activities, making decisions easily, and being creative.”
Depression was assessed with items tapping perceptions of students’ feelings of sadness and stress (such as being easily upset and crying easily), and inability to carry out everyday activities.
The students also described their own feelings and relationships:
Positive relationships with friends
Sample item: “I have a friend who really cares about me.”
Positive relationships at home
Sample item: “I help make decisions with my family.”
Positive relationships at school
Sample item: “I feel close to people at this school.”
Feeling sad or hopeless
Item: “Did you ever feel so sad or hopeless almost every day for 2 weeks or more in a row that you stopped doing some usual activities?”
Thinking about suicide
Sample item: “Did you ever seriously consider attempting suicide?”
The findings: Teens who don’t date are more socially skilled and less depressed
The teachers were not told anything about the dating histories of their students when they evaluated them; they were just asked to report their assessments. The teachers judged the students who were not dating as doing better than the students who were dating as better off in every way. They rated them highest on social skills and leadership attributes. They also perceived them as less depressed than the students who did date.
When the students reported their own feelings of sadness and hopelessness, again it was the students who did not date who were the least likely to feel so sad or hopeless that they stopped doing some of their usual activities.
The students who did not date did not differ from those who did in their tendency to think about suicide. They also did not differ in their reports of how positive their relationships were with their friends or with people at home or at school.
In sum, students who did not date were in some ways no different than those who did. Whenever there was a difference, it favored the students who did not date. There was no way in which the students who did not date did worse – not by their own reports about their lives, and not according to the judgments of their teachers.
It is important to note, as I always do, that studies like this don’t tell us anything definitive about causality. We don’t know whether the students who did not date were more socially skilled, better leaders, and less depressed because they were not dating. Maybe it works in the reverse direction – students who are socially skilled and less depressed are less likely to date. Or maybe something else causes both – for example, maybe students who prioritize their schoolwork are more likely to be socially skilled and less likely to date.
Why this is important
Understanding adolescents who do not date is becoming increasingly important. Analyses of 40 years of data showed that the percentage of 12th graders who have never gone on a date has never been higher.
The findings from this study put a big dent in the assumption that students who do not date are putting their individual development and well-being at risk. When high school students are not dating, that doesn’t mean they are “social misfits” or suffering from some sort of deficit. Instead, the authors suggest, the path they are following “could be one of several positive transitions into adulthood.”
Douglas and Orpinas also go one step further and recommend that “health promotion interventions in schools should also include non-dating as one option for healthy development.” They also make the very insightful observation that some very positive programs, such as those designed to prevent dating violence, are based on the incorrect assumption that all adolescents date. That needs to change.
The authors seem to assume that these teenagers are just delaying dating. I’m waiting for the social scientists who will acknowledge that some people just aren’t interested in dating or romantic relationships, ever, and that their lives can be entirely healthy, too.