Study: Teen Love Hurts

The most famous youthful romance in the English-speaking world, that star-crossed love of Romeo and Juliet, was a tragedy. Now researchers have published a huge study of real-life adolescents in love.

The results suggest that on balance, falling in love makes adolescents more depressed, and more prone to delinquency and alcohol abuse than they would have been if they’d avoided romance.

The reported effect on depression is small, but it’s bigger for girls than boys. The researchers suggest it could be one reason teen girls show higher rates of depression than teen boys do, a difference that persists into adulthood.

Teen Love Ain't Grand

This is not exactly the view of romance that prevails around Valentine’s Day. Researchers who’ve studied teenage love say that smaller studies had shown teen romance can cause emotional trouble, but that the new work overlooked some good things.

The study was done by sociologists Kara Joyner of Cornell University and J. Richard Udry of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. They presented the results in the December issue of the Journal of Health & Social Behavior.

Their results are based on responses from about 8,200 adolescents across the country who were interviewed twice, about a year apart, about a wide variety of things. The kids were ages 12 to 17 at the first interview.

To measure levels of depression, the researchers examined adolescents’ answers to 11 questions about the previous week, such as how often they felt they couldn’t shake off the blues, felt lonely or sad or got bothered by things that normally wouldn’t faze them.

Researchers Compared Teens In and Out of Romance

To see what love’s got to do with it, the researchers compared responses from adolescents who didn’t report any romantic involvement at either interview with those who reported it at both interviews. They looked at how much depression levels changed between interviews for each group.

The finding: The romantically involved adolescents showed a bigger increase in depression levels, or a smaller decrease, than uninvolved teens.

The difference wasn’t much. For boys of all ages, it was about one-half point on a 33-point scale. Girls were hit harder, with a 2-point difference for girls who’d been 12 at the first interview, and diminishing with age to about a half-point difference for girls who’d been 17.

Contradicts Adult Findings

The results were a surprise, because studies of adults have shown married people tend to be less depressed than single ones, Joyner said. So why would love lower adolescent mood?

By analyzing the adolescents’ answers to other questions, Joyner and Udry found evidence for three possible factors: deteriorating relationships with parents, poorer performance in school, and breakups of relationships.

In fact, it appeared that for boys, romance made a difference in depression only if they’d had a breakup between interviews. For girls, in contrast, the biggest impact from romance seemed to come from a rockier relationship with Mom and Dad. That was especially so among younger girls, where the bump in depression was biggest.

To Joyner, it makes sense that “if a young daughter is dating, her parents may be concerned about her choice of partner or what she is doing with him. Presumably, their concern leads to arguments. That would be my guess.”

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