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Teen Dating Research: Are Non-Dating Teens Healthier than Dating Peers?

Brynne didn’t date in high school. She had school, homework, cross country, a part-time job, and a group of friends to spend her weekend free time with watching movies and going out for wings.

Apart from going with a group of friends to high school dances, she didn’t have a boyfriend or regular dating life—except for a two-week period the summer after sophomore year, just to prove to herself she could have a boyfriend if she wanted one.

“I didn’t really have time for a boyfriend, and my friends didn’t really, either,” she shrugs. “I think there was maybe some social value in being the first girl to have a boyfriend, but other than that, it just wasn’t a priority for me or my friends.”

Teenage Dating as a Norm

It turns out teens like Brynne who didn’t date may be better off. New research from the University of Georgia has found that not dating can be an equally beneficial choice for teens. And in some ways, these teens fared even better than their dating peers.

The study, entitled “Social Misfit or Normal Development? Students Who Do Not Date,” determined that teenagers in middle and high school who weren’t dating were far from awkward loners. They had good social skills and low levels of depression.

“The majority of teens have had some type of romantic experience by 15 to 17 years of age, or middle adolescence,” said Brooke Douglas, lead author of the study, which published in The Journal of School Health.

“This high frequency has led some researchers to suggest that dating during teenage years is a normative behavior. That is, adolescents who have a romantic relationship are therefore considered ‘on time’ in their psychological development.”

But what did this finding mean for teens who chose not to date in high school?

A Study to Examine the Effects of Not Dating

Few studies had examined the characteristics of youth who did not date during the teenage years. Douglas decided to learn more.

For the study, Douglas and co-author Pamela Orpinas looked at 594 10th grade students who reported having little or no dating over a seven-year period. They analyzed data collected during a study in which they had followed a cohort of adolescents from Northeast Georgia from sixth through 12th grade.

They examined how they differed on emotional, interpersonal, and adaptive skills from their peers that had dated more. Each spring, students indicated whether they had dated. They reported on a number of social and emotional factors, including:

In addition, their teachers completed questionnaires rating each student’s behavior in areas that included:

  • social skills
  • leadership skills
  • levels of depression.

The Findings

Douglas and Oprinas’ study found that students in the low dating group had similar or better interpersonal skills than their more frequently dating peers.

While the scores of self-reported positive relationships with friends at home and at school did not differ between dating and non-dating peers, teachers rated the non-dating students significantly higher for social skills and leadership skills than their dating peers.

Additionally, the proportion of students who self-reported being sad or hopeless was much lower within this group as well.

Teachers’ scores on the depression scale were also significantly lower for the group that reported no dating. Suicidal ideations, however, did not differ between the two groups according to the study.

“In summary, we found that non-dating students are doing well. They are simply following a different and healthy developmental trajectory than their dating peers,” said Orpinas, who is a professor of health promotion and behavior.

Douglas added: “While the study refutes the notion of non-daters as social misfits, it also calls for health promotion interventions at schools and elsewhere to include non-dating as an option for normal, healthy development.”

The study co-authors emphasized that “as public health professionals, we can do a better job of affirming that adolescents do have the individual freedom to choose whether they want to date or not, and that either option is acceptable and healthy.”

This is welcome news for teens who don’t date. Parents who are concerned about their non-dating teens  developing “normally” should also feel reassured.

Jane Parent

Jane Parent is senior editor of Your Teen.