I'll begin with the bottom line: Romantic involvements during adolescence can be bad for you. They can be bad even for adolescents who stay with the same partner and do not break up. By "bad," I mean that adolescents who become romantically involved, compared to those who do not, become more depressed. Adolescent females become less happy. Both males and females abuse alcohol more and become more delinquent if they become romantically involved than if they do not. The results are noteworthy because they come from a nationally representative sample and a longitudinal design.
In the next few sections, I'll wade into the weeds of the study. Then at the end, I'll re-emerge with some big-picture points.
About the Study
During the 1994-1995 school year, a nationally representative sample of adolescents, ages 12 through 17, were recruited to participate in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. The relevant data are from 8,181 males and females who also participated in a follow-up interview about a year later.
Each time the adolescents were interviewed, they answered questions about their romantic relationship history (e.g., "In the last 18 months, have you had a special romantic relationship with anyone?"), their drinking (e.g., how often in the past 12 months did they do "something you later regretted because you had been drinking"), and any delinquent behavior (e.g., how often they ran away from home or got into a serious physical fight). They also rated their happiness and filled out a standardized measure of depression. Other questions were also included. For example, during the first interview, they were asked how much they hoped they would be romantically involved during the coming year.
Some Key Findings
For many young people, depression increases over the course of the mid-adolescent years, especially for females. So one key question is: Does depression increase more (from the first year of the study to the second) for those who become romantically involved than for those who have had no romantic involvements?
The answer to that question is yes. Depression increases for those who become romantically involved for the first time. It increases for those who remain involved with the same person during the year or so in question.
Both male and female teens become more depressed if they become romantically involved than if they do not, but the increase in depression is even greater for the females.
Guess who else becomes especially more depressed over the course of the two interviews? Those who said that they very much wished they would be romantically involved in the next year (regardless of whether their wish comes true).
Well, they are young, and the findings I've reported so far are for all of the participants, whether they are 12 years old, 17 years old, or anywhere in between. Is romantic involvement less likely to deepen depression for the relatively older adolescents?
No, not for the males. For the guys, age does not matter. What does matter is whether they have had more than one romantic partner in the past 18 months, and whether they've experienced a break-up in the past month. If either of those is true, the guys become more depressed.
So what about the females? The relatively older teenage girls who stay involved with the same partner do seem to show less of an increase in depression than the younger romantically-involved girls. But for girls (and boys) at any age, becoming romantically involved for the first time is linked with becoming more depressed.
Happiness is not just the opposite of depression; it is measured separately. For girls, their happiness takes a hit if they become romantically involved. For boys, levels of happiness do not change with romantic involvement.
Some theorists believe that females' problems show up in levels of depression, whereas males' issues reveal themselves in higher rates of drinking and delinquency. In this study, though, both the females and the males who became romantically involved reported more problems with drinking and delinquency than their peers with no romantic involvement.
So why is this happening? Why do teens who become romantically involved also become especially more depressed? The hints that the authors found are different for the girls than for the boys. The girls who become romantically involved report that their relationship with their parents is getting worse. The boys (and the younger girls) are more likely to have grades that are slipping.
The Big Picture
Valentine's Day is not the only time of year when couples and coupling are romanticized. At this point in history, matrimania is our cultural wallpaper. As adults, we often have the wherewithal to keep it all in perspective - maybe even to mock it. The meta mindset, or big-picture perspective, is more difficult for adolescents to attain. Many of them yearn to be coupled. Maybe that's what brings them status among their peers.
But it does not bring them happiness. Instead, they become more depressed, report more drinking problems, and engage in more delinquent behaviors than their peers who do not become romantically involved.
When you think about adolescents getting into trouble, what comes to mind? I bet it is not romance. Typically, it is their friends, their peer group, "running with the wrong crowd" that gets the blame. This research reminds us of something different: Romance can be risky for teens.
Joyner, K., & Udry, J. R. (2000). You don't bring me anything but down: Adolescent romance and depression. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 41, 369-391.
Valentine's Day Programming for Singles with Attitude:
Did you know that Salt Lake City has a wonderfully progressive community? On Valentine's Day, Troy Williams, the Executive Producer of the KRCL program, RadioActive, will play a series of 10 segments throughout the day on 10 myths about singles (narrated by yours truly). I will also be one of the guests on the RadioActive show that day, which will probably be available later as a podcast. Enjoy!