Students who date in middle school are four times more likely to drop out of school and report twice as much alcohol, tobacco and marijuana use than their single classmates, according to new research.
“Romantic relationships are a hallmark of adolescence, but very few studies have examined how adolescents differ in the development of these relationships,” said Pamela Orpinas, Ph.D., study author and a professor in the University of Georgia’s College of Public Health.
Orpinas followed a group of 624 students from sixth to 12th grade. Each year, the students completed a survey indicating whether they had dated. They also reported the frequency of different behaviors, including the use of drugs and alcohol. Their teachers also completed questionnaires about the students’ academic efforts.
Called the Healthy Teens Longitudinal Study, it included schools from six school districts in northeast Georgia.
“In our study, we found four distinct trajectories,” Orpinas said. “Some students never or hardly ever reported dating from middle to high school, and these students had consistently the best study skills according to their teachers.
“Other students dated infrequently in middle school but increased the frequency of dating in high school. We also saw a large number of students who reported dating since sixth grade.”
Of the early daters, a large portion of the study group — 38 percent — reported dating at almost all measurement points in the study. The second at-risk segment, identified as “high middle school dating,” represented 22 percent of the sample. One hundred percent of these students dated in sixth grade.
“At all points in time, teachers rated the students who reported the lowest frequency of dating as having the best study skills and the students with the highest dating as having the worst study skills,” according to the researcher.
“A likely explanation for the worse educational performance of early daters is that these adolescents start dating early as part of an overall pattern of high-risk behaviors,” Orpinas explained.
Children in these early dating groups were also twice as likely to use alcohol and drugs, she noted.
“Dating a classmate may have the same emotional complications of dating a co-worker,” Orpinas said. “When the couple splits, they have to continue to see each other in class and perhaps witness the ex-partner dating someone else. It is reasonable to think this scenario could be linked to depression and divert attention from studying.”
According to the researcher, more research is needed to identify characteristics that distinguish dating as a healthy developmental process from dating as part of a syndrome of problem behaviors.
The study suggests that “dating should not be considered a rite of passage in middle school,” Orpinas concluded.
The study was published in the Journal of Research on Adolescence.
Source: University of Georgia