Many Western countries universally practice dating, the custom of going out in pairs in order to build relationships with others, especially of the opposite sex. Other benefits ascribed to dating include emotional and social growth, as well as learning more about different people, and about oneself. However, a striking new study shows that not dating could be just as good or even better way to get through the turbulent teens with an intact social persona, lower depression rates, and no evident loss of personal development.
The original conception of dating as a sign of normal development arose as a result of observing the high rate of romantic behavior by the middle to late teens, says researcher Brooke Douglas. She comments, “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.”
However, this left out a large minority of adolescents who chose not to date. The research was focused on the development of this segment of teenagers, and attempted to answer the question: were teens who didn’t date socially maladjusted?
To answer this, the study looked at students of the tenth grade who dated very little or not at all over seven years, and then compared them with a control group who dated frequently.
The data came from an earlier 2013 study by the co-author of the current report, Pamela Orpinas, collected from almost 600 Northeast Georgia students studying in the sixth grade. They were followed through the tenth grade. They were reviewed each year on their dating practices, and also with respect to specific social and emotional factors including healthy relationships with their friends and at school, depressive symptoms and suicidal thoughts, and home relationships. This self-reported data was supplemented by teacher reports on each student in terms of social and leadership behaviour as well as depression.
Using this data, the students were classified into four groups: low, increasing, High Middle School, and Frequent. The data from the Low group was compared against that from the other three groups.
What did the study show?
Students who didn’t date were just as good or better at making and keeping good relationships with others. While most students, both those who dated and those who didn’t, reported almost similar results when it came to good relationships in school, at home and with their friends, teachers reported significantly more impressive social and leadership skills in those who didn’t date. Depressive symptoms and scores were also much lower for this group on teachers’ reports as well as based on self-reported scores. Suicidal ideas were equal across all groups.
What do we learn?
The study is important in several ways, according to the authors. Firstly, it reaffirms that choosing not to date is a valid option in adolescence. Secondly, dating is not essential for social development, nor are those who do not date socially maladjusted. Thus health promotion programs at school must include this basic information to refute the idea that dating is non-optional, but is just one of two choices.
Orpinas sums it up: “In summary, we found that non-dating students are doing well and are simply following a different and healthy developmental trajectory than their dating peers. “
The study was published in The Journal of School Health on September 4, 2019.
Douglas, B & Orpinas, P. (2019) Social Misfit or Normal Development? Students Who Do Not Date. Journal of School Health. doi.org/10.1111/josh.12818.