“Nunchuck skills… bow-hunting skills… computer hacking skills… Girls only want boyfriends who have great skills.” Such is the wisdom of Napoleon Dynamite, all-time champion of all high-school nerds, and who, if he were a real-life person who’d graduated in the mid-2000s, would surely by now have mastered all three, while site-admining five or six incel forums and still living with his grandma.
As told by Hollywood, the humiliation of simultaneously being a teenager and being unable to get a date is one of the deepest, most difficult emotional traumas a person can endure. In Never Been Kissed, it drove an adult Drew Barrymore to do-over her senior year to erase her past as a social outcast; in Weird Science it inspired a pair of girl-starved geeks to construct their own Frankenstein’s supermodel with hilarious consequences; in The Virgin Suicides, it led to the most depressing 60-second shot sequence in all of cinema; and in Carrie it led to a famous prom-night apocalyptic tantrum.
This received caricature, of non-dating high school students as misfits to be pitied, avoided and/or laughed at, is an instantly recognizable and relatable one. But it turns out that it’s also, in most cases, utterly wrong, and to a surprising statistical extent: In reality, the average adolescent who doesn’t date, whether through choice or lack of available options, will usually have significantly better social skills than their classmates who regularly hook up.
These, at least, are the findings of one set of public-health researchers from the University of Georgia who have been the first to take the time — and who have the social science skills, computer-modeling skills and regression-analysis skills — to look into this properly. Their work turns on its head the taken-for-granted narrative of teen singles as the awkward, aloof or angry and maladjusted social rejects of the high school community. Not only that, it also suggests that the non- or barely dating kids are the ones who are least likely to be depressed, as well as the most likely to be regarded as leaders among their peers.
“It’s interesting that so many people have called me and said, ‘You know what? That was me! I wasn’t dating!’” says Pamela Orpinas, professor of public health at the University of Georgia, whose paper “Social Misfits or Normal Development? Students Who Do Not Date” (co-authored with her colleague Brooke Douglas) was recently published in the Journal of School Health. “They’ve said they felt awkward in high school for not dating, but they developed positive relationships later in life. You know, I didn’t date in high school either, and now I’ve been married for 30 years.”
Her results, downplaying the downsides of spending your adolescence unattached, are just one aspect of an ambitious survey of teenage development, which was conducted over seven years between 2003 and 2009. Her study followed one cohort of 620 pupils — who hailed from diverse racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds — from 6th grade through 12th grade, as they navigated their way through middle schools and high schools in northeastern Georgia. At the end of it, Orpinas and her fellow researchers were armed with enough dater-data to figure out how a whole suite of youth behaviors and characteristics map on to their romantic experiences — often in unexpected ways.
Gathering Data on Later Daters
“During those seven years, every year we would ask them, ‘Have you been dating in the past three months?’ Some students said yes, and some students said no,” explains Orpinas. Crunching seven years’ worth of these teenage love binaries through computer models, the researchers were able to discover four distinct patterns in how dating habits evolved over time between the ages of 11 and 18.
First, constituting around 16 percent of the sample, were the ‘low’ daters — those who rarely, if ever, dated throughout their time in school (who answered “yes” just once, on average). At the kissier end of the spectrum, the “frequent” daters (who answered “yes” almost every time they were asked), formed the largest group, at 38 percent.
Two intermediate “dating trajectories” also emerged: Almost a quarter of students fell into the “increasing” dater category — those who started middle school with zero romantic activity but then picked up the pace with each subsequent year — while a slightly smaller group the researchers confusingly termed “high middle school dating” (let’s instead call them “comeback kids”) had a bumpier ride. These changeable scamps seemed to enjoy early dating success in 6th grade but then saw interest tail off until high school, at which point they scrambled back onto an upward curve alongside their increasing-dating classmates.
Just what explains this return to form — makeover parties? Vehicle ownership? Panic? — the research doesn’t reveal, but we could hazard a guess that the onset of puberty, which often unveils some big genetic-lottery win that wasn’t previously apparent, might have something to do with it.
“What we found then,” says Orpinas, referring to an initial set of findings from the survey, published in 2013, “was that the kids who reported a very high probability of dating in 6th grade also reported they were using drugs — and they were more likely to drop out of high school later.” In fact, these early daters, from among the “frequent” and “comeback kids” groups were, according to the paper, “approximately four times more likely to drop out of school than the low daters,” and “approximately 70 percent more students in the two early dating groups reported using drugs than students in the other groups.”
So it seems that hooking up around the age of 11 or 12 indicates that students might make some risky choices down the line. “The kids who were dating very early, they’re not just dating,” suggests Orpinas. “They’re probably going to a party that’s unsupervised, and maybe trying alcohol and other drugs — though not all of them do this, of course.” Still, it’s a little worrying when you realize that the early daters accounted for three-fifths of all students.
Where the connections start to get counterintuitive is in the students’ responses to questions about their social life and mental well-being — areas which were also assessed by their teachers, to provide a non-subjective, outsiders’ perspective on the data. With the teachers, she says, “We were measuring something that’s slightly different. They were evaluating social skills — about how the kids behave in class, how they get involved in different clubs and their leadership skills.” The students, meanwhile, reported on their relationships at home, at school and in the community: “Do you have good friends? Do you get along with them?” — as well as whether they’d recently been having feelings of sadness or hopelessness, and any suicidal thoughts.
Across all these measurements, the results were striking. According to Orpinas and Douglas’ 2019 study, by the 10th grade, “all indicators showed that adolescents in the low-dating trajectory had similar or better interpersonal skills than youth in the other trajectories.” And, by some margin, it was the frequent-dating category who had the poorest social skills, according to teachers’ feedback. When it came to leadership qualities, it was a similar story, with teachers rating the date-dodgers as stronger leaders than every other grouping, and frequent daters as by far the least leader-y.
Most surprising of all, the low-dating group were the least depressed, both according to self-reported data and according to the teachers’ hot takes. Both the comeback kids and the frequent daters — taken together, these were kids who kicked off their dating lives in 6th grade or earlier — scored high on the “sadness” and “hopelessness” charts. The report also points out that “our results showed that suicidal ideations didn’t differ by dating trajectories” — and, adds Orpinas, in general “that was fairly low.”
Overall, says Orpinas, “the results were so strong, and having an independent rater was so important.” Having teachers indicate “These are probably my best students,” and for these kids to turn out to be those the computer models had identified as the non-daters in the pack, leant her findings a great deal of weight. Crucially, explains Orpinas, “the teachers didn’t know whether the students [they were rating] were dating or not.”
“Frequently people make comments about a kid who isn’t dating in high school,” she reflects. “Maybe that it’s something strange or rare, or maybe it’s just social awkwardness. And this study shows that no, they’re not; they’re just different.”
This all seems fairly decisive in “refuting the notion that non-daters are social misfits,” as the study puts it. But if so, how did our dismal image of dateless teens end up being so universal, and so completely at odds with the much more encouraging reality?
Carl Pickhardt is a psychologist and author based in Austin, Texas who writes a popular blog on parenting adolescents for Psychology Today, and whose book Who Stole My Child? — Parenting Through the Four Stages of Adolescence was published last year. In his view, we’ve been misled by a culture that’s overly fond of ham-fisted stereotypes. “All the popular media — advertising images, love stories, love songs and romantic movies — convey the notion that romance leads to happiness, and that to be truly happy one has to have a romantic relationship,” he says. The trope of the lovelorn teenager exiled to the edges of school life, meanwhile, “is just part of the popular mythology of romance that we apparently like to believe in.”
It’s true that films and TV have relentlessly cast love-shy teenagers as desperate, lonely, awkward or all three. This has been the case at least since John Hughes’ succession of high-school romance movies during the 1980s turned adolescent angst-thropology into a high art form. The crass high-school caste systems so central to his movies — like The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles and Weird Science — imagined a rigid social order with losers and loners at the bottom, and teen movies and TV shows have clung to it religiously ever since. But in recent years this entrenched Mean Girls/High School Musical formula has been making room for a more nuanced view of screen teens.
The 2015 movie The Duff, for instance, opens with a voiceover that knowingly satirizes those classic taxonomies of teen tribes that’s lifted directly from the The Breakfast Club: “For generations of high-schoolers, you could only be a jock, a geek, a princess, a bully or a basket case. But times have changed. Jocks play video games, princesses are on antidepressants and geeks basically run the country.”
And while it’s still a rare sighting, the socially competent non-dating teenager isn’t entirely absent from today’s pop culture. Two turned up in this year’s brilliant coming-of-age comedy Booksmart, in which best friends Amy and Molly have recused themselves from their high school’s social fray to concentrate on their grades, only to realize too late in their senior year that many of the kids who spent the whole time partying, having sex and doing drugs have ended up achieving the same sort of academic success anyway.
“We are not one-dimensional,” complains Molly to Amy, as the reclusive pair share their moment of social awakening on a bleak hilltop looking down on their neighborhood. “We are smart and fun. You’ve been out for two years, and you’ve never kissed a girl; I want you to experience this. We are going to change our stories, forever.”
When they start crashing parties in a last-dash effort to make up for lost time, they’re revealed (minor spoiler alert) as being anything but shy or socially awkward — instead, they turn out to be better adjusted and more emotionally prepared for life than everyone else in their graduating class.
“Non-dating teens aren’t ‘maladjusted,’ they just aren’t ready or inclined to date,” says Pritchard, perhaps putting his finger on why the characters in Booksmart seem to resonate with something approaching real adolescent experience. Many students who go through their teens without becoming romantically entangled, he says, effectively “socialize without dating. In doing so, they simplify their lives. Dating is social risk-taking that creates emotional vulnerability and interpersonal complexity.”
This touches on why it might be that, on average, date-shy teenagers also appear to be less depressed than peers who are ducking in and out of relationships the whole time. “It’s a little complicated for young people when they date, because those relationships are generally short,” says Orpinas. “It’s like dating a coworker, because they’re generally dating a classmate. And then that relationship ends three weeks later, and now their partners are dating someone else in the class. You can imagine the emotional conflicts going on there.” Break-ups, no matter what age you are but especially if you’re new to them, can feel like the end of the world — and if your world’s ending on a regular basis, you might feel more inclined to tick yes to “Feelings of hopelessness?” on a survey.
There is plenty of evidence that dating in the middle years of adolescence helps kids feel more at ease with their place in the social hierarchy — one study of 10th graders from 2009 found the “amount of romantic experience was associated with higher reports of social acceptance [and] friendship competence.” (It also notes that it was also linked to greater substance use and “more delinquent behavior.”) But this seemingly obvious finding precisely highlights why we might be misled by notions of acceptance and popularity as unvarnished positives — because they don’t necessarily equate to good social skills and feeling fulfilled. According to Pritchard, “The most important teenage relationship is to themselves — liking themselves, believing in themselves, valuing themselves, enjoying their own company. Young people who socially depend on others to feel good about themselves place their wellbeing at risk.”
Should Dating Be Delayed to Adulthood?
Fueling the misfit myth could be the fact that cultural depictions of teen romance (or the lack of it) are generally dreamt up by grown-ups — and grown-ups are likely to be projecting their adult relationship baggage on to younger lives where it doesn’t exist in the same way. As mature cultural consumers, says Pritchard, “We’re encouraged to fall in love with love,” so the temptation to typecast a teenager as a “misfit” if they’re not engaging in the whole social dance of finding partners is an easy one to follow. But, he points out, “The desire to lovingly ‘couple up’ is more of a young-adult issue — ages early 20s to 30s — than an adolescent one.”
No matter how much we like to kid ourselves that we remember what it’s like, it’s hard to summon the emotional tides of teenage life without a fair bit of psychological effort. “Among mid-to-late adolescents (ages 13 to 18) there is more interest in social dating, but most of that isn’t of the romantic kind,” says Pritchard. “I don’t see a lot of peer pressure for this kind of relationship among teenagers. Most socializing is in mixed groups, and most dating is casual.”
No doubt for some teenagers who want to be dating and aren’t, it’s a source of genuine despondency — we all had those moments growing up, no matter which trajectory we were on. And, of course, there really are socially awkward kids out there, mumbling, avoiding the bullies and not making eye-contact in their many thousands. It’s just that, as Orpinas insists, “there are people who are socially awkward who are dating, and people who are socially awkward who are not dating. So we do need to rethink that part of socialization.”
If we need to rethink our whole understanding of teenagers’ romantic development, does this mean we should encourage them to avoid dating, in all its forms? Orpinas resists the idea of shutting down a potentially positive, fun part of teenage life (after all, that’s what the parents in The Virgin Suicides and Carrie tried to do, and look how those girls responded). Instead, she thinks we should be clearer that not dating — whether it’s a lifestyle choice or imposed by circumstances — is every bit a healthy, normal route through adolescence. “There are programs for high-school students on healthy partner relationships,” she points out, “and in those programs there’s the assumption that the students are dating. I think one practical application [of our findings] is just to balance this and say, ‘Some people date later, and that’s just fine.’”
Pritchard broadly agrees. “Staying socially single and dating-free is fine; when it’s time to socially and romantically date, you will know.” And he cautions anyone inclined to slap morally loaded labels on adolescents’ love lives: “Teenagers are not love-crazed, sex-crazed, outlaws or misfits,” he says, invoking the psychologists’ version of those Breakfast Club archetypes. “They are young people embarked on the coming-of-age journey of redefinition from older child to young adult. In the process they’re detaching from childhood and parents for more independence, and differentiating from childhood and parents for more individuality. Adults need to respect this process, not stereotype and demonize it.”
Or, to put the same thing in the eternal words of one thoroughly demonized sexless teen: They’re going to do whatever they feel like they wanna do. Gosh.