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Academic Performance and Drug Use Among Teens Who Date

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT

Meet The Team >

Dating is a big part of being a teenager.

Movies, pop music, books, and social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook glorify teen love, teen crushes, being boy-crazy, girl-crazy, or non-binary they/them crazy. To be clear, by crazy we mean obsessed, and by obsessed we don’t mean clinically. We mean the can’t-stop-thinking-about-my-crush kind of obsession, and crazy as in I’m crazy about this person because well I just am kind of crazy. Almost everyone alive has crushed out on someone to the point of temporary madness – and that type of crush typically happens in middle school or high school. There’s something here we need to point out about all this teen romance and crushiness, though: being an adolescent and having crushes does not automatically mean you go on actual dates or have a steady significant other during middle school or high school.

If you think back on high school, you can probably remember how it was: sure, everyone had crushes, but not everyone dated.

The available data supports this point: the largest survey conducted on dating patterns in U.S. middle and high school students shows that just over half dated at least once between ages twelve and eighteen. This number rose from just over a quarter at age twelve to just under three-quarters at age eighteen.

Teens date: yes.

Do all teens date?

No.

That makes us rethink our first sentence, above: dating is a big part of being a teenager.

Is it really?

Instead, it would be more accurate to say that forming and participating in relationships outside the family is part of being a teenager, and dating is one form those relationships might take. Dating is not something everyone does, however, and there’s very little evidence that dating as a teenager is, in itself, an important and positive developmental milestone.

In fact, evidence shows that teens who date frequently are at higher risk of a range of negative emotional, behavioral, and academic outcomes.

Dating, Grades, and Drug Use

Researchers at the University of Georgia conducted a study that followed a group of around six hundred teens over a seven-year period, from sixth grade to twelfth grade. They questioned students on their dating habits once a year over the duration of the study, in order to “…examine whether students follow distinct trajectories in their development of romantic relationships from middle to high school.”

They accomplished this task, identifying the following dating trajectories among middle and high school students:

  1. Low. Students in this category reported dating around one time per year between sixth and twelfth grade.
  2. Increasing. Students in this category reported dating between three and four times per year between sixth and twelfth grade.
  3. High Middle School. Students in this category reported dating between four and five times per year between sixth and twelfth grade.
  4. Frequent. Students in this category reported dating around six times per year between sixth and twelfth grade.

Students in the low dating category made up 16 percent of the sample set, students in the increasing category made up 24 percent, students in the high middle school category made up 22 percent, and students in the high category made up 38 percent of the set.

After identifying these dating trajectories, researchers analyzed the relationship between these dating patterns two critical metrics for teenagers: academic performance and drug use. Academic performance was assessed by two things: study skills, as reported by teachers, and dropout rates, as determined by school records. Drug use was assessed by a questionnaire that asked students about their alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana use.

The researchers hypothesized that “students who start dating early will have a higher high school dropout rate, will have worse study skills, and will be more likely to use drugs than students who date less frequently or start dating later.”

That’s a clear and bold hypothesis, and we like that, because that’s what science is for: forming hypotheses, designing experiments, collecting data, analyzing results, and making conclusions.

We think you’ll be surprised by the results – and we’ll offer our conclusions, but we want you to read along and draw your own final conclusions for yourself.

Frequent Dating: Too Cool for School?

First, we’ll offer the data on the relationship between dating patterns and academic performance, starting with study skills.

Teachers completed surveys that assessed their students’ proficiency in:

  • Completing extra credit work
  • Organization
  • Finishing homework assignments
  • Reading assigned chapters

Based on these criteria, teachers reported:

  • Students in the low dating category had the best study skills.
  • Students in the frequent dating category had the worst study skills.
  • The others – students in the increasing and high middle school dating categories has average study skills.

Now let’s have a look at the dropout rates, by dating category:

  • Low dating: 7.3% dropout rate
  • Increasing dating: 9.1%
  • High middle school dating: 22.6%
  • Frequent dating: 24.5%

We find this more than interesting.

Fascinating, even.

Why?

Because of the general idea that we opened this article with: dating is a big part of being a teen. Along with that idea come the assumptions – which appear more and more unfounded with each word we write – that dating is a positive developmental step, that everyone does it, and that in general, it’s good for teens.

If we judge what’s good for teens by their academic performance – which is reasonable, because most people would agree that graduating from high school with good study skills is a good thing – this study says that frequent dating is not a good thing.

We’ll state the results in a different way, in case the percentages aren’t clear:

Students in the frequent dating category were four times as likely to drop out of school.

Granted, this is one study of three hundred students. Nevertheless, the numbers are the numbers, and it would be unwise to ignore them.

Dating: Associations with Alcohol, Tobacco, and Drug Use

Let’s look at the data on the relationship between dating patterns and alcohol and drug use. Once a year over the seven-year duration of the study, researchers asked students if, in the thirty days prior to the survey, they had ever:

  1. Had more than a sip of alcohol (drank alcohol)
  2. Been drunk
  3. Smoked cigarettes
  4. Smoked marijuana

We’ll start with the data for the low dating category, then move on to increasing, high middle school, and frequent dating categories. We’ll also show the change that occurred in students in each category as they moved from middle school (MS) to high school (HS).

Low Dating: Alcohol, Tobacco, and Drug Use

  • Drank alcohol
    • MS: 23.5%
    • HS: 48%
  • Been drunk
    • MS: 11.2%
    • HS: 31.6%
  • Smoked Cigarettes:
    • MS: 14.3%
    • HS: 25.5%
  • Smoked Marijuana:
    • MS: 9.2%
    • HS:22.4%
  • Used all three:
    • MS: 9.2%
    • HS: 17.4%

Increasing Dating: Alcohol, Tobacco, and Drug Use

  • Drank alcohol
    • Middle 24.2%
    • HS: 56.4%
  • Been drunk
    • MS: 10.7%
    • HS: 30.2%
  • Smoked Cigarettes:
    • MS: 10.7%
    • HS: 27.5%
  • Smoked Marijuana:
    • MS: 5.4%
    • HS: 20.3%
  • Used all three:
    • MS: 5.4%
    • HS: 13.4%

High Middle School Dating: Alcohol, Tobacco, and Drug Use

  • Drank alcohol
    • MS: 45.5%
    • HS: 65.7%
  • Been drunk
    • MS: 19.5%
    • HS: 48.5%
  • Smoked Cigarettes:
    • MS: 23.1%
    • HS: 47.8%
  • Smoked Marijuana:
    • MS: 20.1%
    • HS: 35.8%
  • Used all three:
    • MS: 14.3%
    • HS: 31.3%

Frequent Dating: Alcohol, Tobacco, and Drug Use

  • Drank alcohol
    • MS: 50.2%
    • HS: 67.9%
  • Been drunk
    • MS: 22.1%
    • HS: 53.6%
  • Smoked Cigarettes:
    • MS: 26.8%
    • HS: 46.0%
  • Used Marijuana:
    • MS: 14.7%
    • HS: 36.9%
  • Used all three:
    • MS: 11.7%
    • HS: 30.4%

That’s a lot of data – but don’t worry, we’ll summarize it for you, and it won’t take long: students in the high middle school and frequent dating categories reported using alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana twice as much as students in the low and increasing dating categories.

Key Takeaways on Teen Dating

It’s important to point out that the study we discuss in this article does not claim moderate or frequent dating causes teenagers to develop poor study skills, drop out of school, or use alcohol, tobacco, and marijuana. The study we discuss, which is called “Dating Trajectories From Middle to High School: Association With Academic Performance and Drug Use,” was designed to determine, first, whether students followed distinct dating trajectories from middle school to high school, and second, to determine whether students in the various dating categories – if identified – shared common patterns of academic achievement and drug use.

The research team accomplished both goals. They identified four dating trajectories, then reported their associations with academic performance and drug use. We summarized their data and presented it above: it’s clear that in this sample of middle and high school students, more dating is associated with more negative outcomes. While we advise caution about inferring causality on a population level from a study with a modest sample size that’s not meant to determine causality, there’s still a lot to learn from this data.

First, let’s talk about the sample set: around sixth hundred students from northeast Georgia, initially drawn from nine middle schools in six school districts. The schools were a mix of urban and rural, with slightly higher poverty and crime rates than the national U.S. average. However, the racial/ethnic mix was representative of the U.S. as a whole: 47.9 percent white, 35.8 percent African American, 11.8 percent Latino, 1.1% Asian, and 3.4% other. Those numbers aren’t a perfect match, but they are close enough that we can – cautiously – infer general patterns from the data gathered from this sample set.

What Can We Infer?

That collectively, based on this data, we need to reassess our view about dating among teens. Particularly the general idea that everyone dates and that dating is a good thing. It seems like everyone dates, but the numbers say that’s not true. It also seems like dating in high school is a positive developmental milestone that helps teens learn how to form and maintain romantic relationships later in life. While that may be the case, this study shows that in some instances, dating is more complex and nuanced than we think.

And that’s what we want you to do: think about teen dating. Think about your teen, whether they date, whether you want them to date, and think about some of the things this study associates with teens who date frequently, as opposed to teens who do not date much at all. That’s our goal in offering and discussing this data: helping you decide what’s best for your teen.

We’ll let the study authors close this article:

“Parents, educators, and healthcare providers should consider whether early dating is part of a more complex pattern of high-risk behaviors and encourage middle school students to focus on friendships and academic pursuits. A strategy to help early adolescents is to change social norms to make it acceptable not to date or to consider dating as an option, not a required rite of passage in middle school.”

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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