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Teens Who Don’t Date Can Still Have Strong Social Skills

Being single in adolescence need not be a source of concern.

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By Sofia Quaglia

Romantic relationships can be instrumental to a teen’s social development. But teenagers who don’t date aren’t necessarily maladjusted. Overall, they appear to have equally strong—and in some cases superior—social skills, leadership abilities, and mental health as their peers, according to a recent study published in the Journal of School Health .

“They’re doing just fine,” says lead author Brooke Douglas , a doctoral student at the University of Georgia. “Some students follow different paths, and both options are healthy. There shouldn’t be pressure to date as a rite of passage.”

Douglas examined a sample of 594 high school sophomores across Northeast Georgia. The data came from the Healthy Teens Longitudinal Study, which followed students from 2003 to 2009 and tracked their dating patterns. Teens were assigned to one of four dating trajectories based on their dating data: low (reported recently having a girlfriend or boyfriend at just one point, on average, in the seven-year study), increasing (reported dating an average of three and a half times, more frequently as they got older), high middle school (an average of four and a half times, and all dated in middle school), and frequent (an average of six times).

As sophomores, the students completed surveys about positive relationships at home, at school, or with friends, rating how much they agreed with statements such as “I have a friend who really cares about me” and “I do fun things with my parents.” They also answered questions about feeling sad or hopeless for an extended period of time or having thoughts about suicide. Finally, teachers rated each student on social and leadership skills and signs of depression.

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Perhaps surprisingly, students who dated the least were those who possessed the best social and leadership skills, according to their teachers. They also received the lowest depression scores from teachers. In fact, the proportion of pupils in the low-dating category who reported sadness or hopelessness was half the size of that in the frequent-dating category. There was no statistically significant difference in suicidal ideation between the groups.

“Our results refute the notion that non-daters are maladjusted or lack social competence,” Douglas says.

The findings are consistent with prior research showing that teenagers in romantic relationships tend to experience greater symptoms of depression, according to Douglas. “Romantic relationships are complicated and often short-lived. Break-ups are one of the leading predictors of suicide in adolescents,” she says. This may help explain why students who did not date much were less likely to feel sad and hopeless.

“We’re not suggesting that teenagers shouldn’t date. We just want parents and educators to know that not dating is equally beneficial,” she concludes.

While differences between the groups materialized in the teacher reports and some self-reports, no relationship emerged between dating frequency and self-reported positive relationships. “Whose opinion is going to matter more over time? Are teachers better predictors of where students are going? We don’t know that,” says psychologist Joanne Davila of Stony Brook University, who was not involved with the research. Another key question to explore is why single teens aren’t dating, she adds.

It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what students classify as dating: Some may believe dating means texting every day while others may consider dating a full-fledged sexual relationship. It’s best to leave the definition up to the adolescent and pose a broad question, Davila explains. Accordingly, the questionnaire in Douglas’s study simply asked, “In the last 3 months, have you had a boyfriend or girlfriend (someone that you dated, gone out with, gone steady with)?”

“In our world today, people have lots of choices,” says Davila. “We have to start asking about and including social media and the internet, and taking into account sexual orientation and gender identity.”

Overall, schools should understand that non-dating is one of the many options for healthy development when talking to students about relationships, according to both Douglas and Davila. This insight could be added to sexual education and health programs, or one-time seminars that target social skills or domestic violence. Even just a sentence can help, Douglas says, at school, at home, or in church.

“It boils down to cultural norms and societal expectations, and that’s a lot to change,” says Douglas, who advises schools on public health promotion. “We just have to get in touch with the adolescents on a community level and remind them they can feel comfortable focusing on other things.”

Sofia Quaglia is a Psychology Today Editorial Intern.

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Douglas, B. and Orpinas, P. (2019), Social Misfit or Normal Development? Students Who Do Not Date. J School Health, 89: 783-790. doi:10.1111/josh.12818