Generations of teen movies — from “Sixteen Candles” to “Clueless” to this year’s “Booksmart” — have upheld dating and hooking up in high school as not only a rite of passage, but also a sign of being a confident and socially adjusted adolescent.
In fact, a new study suggests that teens who stay single during those formative years are actually happier than those riding the highs and lows of hormone-fueled relationship roller coasters. (Cue Beyonce’s “Single Ladies” — and parents sighing in relief as they use this as another excuse to beg their kids to abstain from dating “until they’re older.”)
Dating is considered a normal and often essential part of teen development, as more than a third of adolescents ages 13 to 17 have had some type of romantic experience, and that jumps to 44% between the ages of 15 and 17, according to Pew Research. And dating is indeed one important way of developing social skills and growing emotionally.
But that also means some two-thirds of teens actually don’t date. And Brooke Douglas, a doctoral student in health promotion at the University of Georgia’s College of Public Health, wondered about those lonely hearts.
“Does this mean that teens that don’t date are maladjusted in some way? That they are social misfits?” she said in an interview with the University of Georgia’s online newspaper. “Few studies had examined the characteristics of youth who do not date during the teenage years, and we decided we wanted to learn more.”
So she analyzed data collected by study co-author Pamela Orpinas that followed a group of adolescents in northeast Georgia from sixth through 12th grade. Each spring, the students self-reported whether or not they had dated, as well as a social and emotional factors such as their relationships with friends, their relationships at home and at school, and whether they were showing any symptoms of depression or having suicidal thoughts. Their teachers were also surveyed about each student’s behavior in areas including social skills, leadership skills and levels of depression.
And the results showed that non-dating students had similar — or even better — interpersonal skills than their classmates who were in romantic relationships.
What’s more, their teachers rated these single students “significantly higher” for social and leadership skills than their coupled classmates. And both the students themselves and the teachers reported that the non-dating teens were happier and less depressed. The number of students who self-reported feeling sad or hopeless was also “significantly lower” in the non-dating group.
“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,” Orpinas told the UGA news site.
Douglas added that, “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.”
Indeed, government data shows that teens are dating less now than they did in the past, with the number of 12th grade students who remain single jumping from 14% in 1991 to 38% in 2013. And the number of teens who had ever had sex has been on the decline, dropping from 54% in 1992 to 40% in 2017.
The authors didn’t offer explanations on why these kids were happier on their own. But research in adults shows that some alone-time can improve quality of life. A 2016 presentation for the American Psychological Association put forth evidence that single people have a heightened sense of self-determination, and they are more likely to experience “a sense of continued growth and development as a person” compared to those who stayed married, for example. There’s also research showing that many single people are more physically active and have lower BMIs than people who are married. Plus, looking for love isn’t cheap: The average American spends $1,596 a year on dating, including the grooming and bar tabs that goes into going out. So being alone can be easier on the budget.
There’s also plenty of benefits to being in a healthy romantic relationship, of course. The bottom-line is that either lifestyle choice is normal.
“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,” said Douglas.