If middle school is a popularity contest, there is one sure way to jump ahead of the competition: Pair up with a boyfriend or girlfriend. For most 11- to 13-year-olds, these bonds are as much about social strategy as they are about real affection. However, a new study found that pairing up in middle school may be a risky in the long run.
Professor Pamela Orpinas from the University of Georgia tracked 624 students from sixth grade through high school graduation. At the end of each school year, the students answered questions about their home lives, whether they were dating and more. Teachers also evaluated the students’ study skills, which were based on whether they were willing to do extra credit work, complete their homework, arrive to class on time, etc.
Orpinas and her team of researchers classified the students in four groups of dating trajectories: low (16%), increasing (24%), high middle school (22%), and frequent (38%).
“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,” Orpinas wrote for the study findings, which were published in the Journal of Research on Adolescence.
The study found that students who dated earlier were twice as likely to use drugs and alcohol during high school. They are four times more likely to drop out of school. In contrast, students who didn’t date performed better in school.
“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 said in a press release.
Orpinas also speculated that the emotional toll of breakups may cause students to turn to unhealthy forms of stress relief.
“Dating a classmate may have the same emotional complications as 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.”
Parents should take an interest in their tweens lives and emphasize there are more important things than dating in middle school. I remember thinking it was a death sentence when my parents told me I wasn’t allowed to date until 16. In retrospect, that just gave me more time to concentrate on sports, school and meaningful relationships with friends. In fact, all of my bridemaids at my wedding two years ago were friends from high school. Meanwhile, the boy was someone I met in college.