Should You Let Your Kid Date in Middle/High School? Science Gives a Surprising Answer

Teens holding hands in school

Young love can show you things about yourself you’ve never known. It can bring you to happiness and leave you in despair. It can take away the trust you thought you had with others, and make you want to give up on the world. It can teach you what it means to be human, and make you feel more real than ever before. Young love can be all of these things and more, but we never see it coming. The only thing we can really expect is that it will probably change us, for better or worse. Luckily, new research has just looked into some of the effects of dating on academic performance, drug usage, and school drop-out rates, so we know now more than ever before. The results of the research are stunning.

The research comes from the University of Georgia, and it involved 624 students from six different school divisions in Georgia, over a seven-year period (from sixth to twelfth grade/aged 12 to 18). Each year, the students completed a survey about whether or not they had dated, as well as the frequency of such things as drug and alcohol consumption. Their grades were provided by their teachers in order to analyze their academic success, and yearly dropout rates were measured as well.

There were four distinct groups: Those who dated since the sixth grade, those who dated a bit in middle school and gradually increased dating frequency in high school, those who hardly ever dated from middle to high school, and those who never dated. Get ready for the results…

Students who never or hardly ever dated from middle to high school had the best study skills according to their teachers. Study skills include finishing homework, working hard, being well organized, and doing work for extra credit.

Of the students who dated since sixth grade, 38% reported dating at almost all measurement points in the study. They were also found to have the worst study skills.

One explanation offered is that dating early is an overall “pattern of high-risk behaviors.” In other words, it may not necessarily be the early dating that causes the bad study skills, but perhaps a third variable is causing both early dating and bad study skills. For example, parenting style, opportunity, etc., may influence both.

Of course, there are other more causal factors as well. For example, when a couple breaks up, they have to continue to see each other in class – much like colleagues dating – which may include seeing their ex date with another boyfriend or girlfriend. This may distract students and, for example, cause depression that is of course not conducive to studying behaviors.

But the really interesting thing about this study is what else was observed from the early dating group. Students who dated since the sixth grade were twice as much alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana consumption than their non-dating counterparts. They were also four times more likely to drop out of school.

The authors note that we need more research on what makes early dating a healthy developmental process vs. an academic spiral down the drain. One thing that is suggested by the lead author, though, is that “dating should not be considered a rite of passage in middle school.”

Perhaps one route would be to do what Japan has so much of – gender-segregated schools. Japan has such private schools at the elementary level, and then public and private schools after that, all the way up to university. …But I’m guessing your kid isn’t going to want to go there. And even then, they still might date someone by meeting them online. Regular readers of Skeptikai may recall that somewhere around 30% of teenage girls are meeting people from the internet offline (though that number should be a bit lower).

So should you let your kid date? Well, I would say it’s not an easy “yes” or “no” question. As I mentioned in that earlier post, telling your child not to date would likely make them want to do it more, in order to assert their freedom; and this is especially true at such a time in someone’s life where they want to rebel against their parents. But I do agree with the authors that dating shouldn’t be considered a rite of passage, though a random article or a prohibition by parents is probably not going to make a major difference.

Sadly, as with so much of the youth culture, TV producers and children’s movies idealize and romanticize such relationships. The Japanese expression “iina” (いいなぁ) comes to mind – “I wish I had that,” or “that would be nice.” Indeed, carefully produced fictions look the most romantic.

So what I would do as a parent is emphasize the immaturity of people whose mental faculties are still developing (i.e., teens), and make them realize that they should be in no rush to date people. On top of the fact that there will always be far more people to date than you could ever possibly even meet, the often socially cruel school environment may not be the best place to engage in such behavior.

When you get out of the small and unforgiving world of high school, it’s usually much easier to have the social life that you want.

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