Feb. 15, 2001 -- The most famous youthful romance in the English-speaking world,that star-crossed love of Romeo and Juliet, was a tragedy. Nowresearchers have published a huge study of real-life adolescents inlove.
The results suggest that on balance, falling in love makesadolescents more depressed, and more prone to delinquency andalcohol abuse than they would have been if they’d avoided romance.
The reported effect on depression is small, but it’s bigger forgirls than boys. The researchers suggest it could be one reasonteen girls show higher rates of depression than teen boys do, adifference that persists into adulthood.
Teen Love Ain't Grand
This is not exactly the view of romance that prevails aroundValentine’s Day. Researchers who’ve studied teenage love say thatsmaller 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 CornellUniversity and J. Richard Udry of the University of North Carolinaat Chapel Hill. They presented the results in the December issue ofthe Journal of Health & Social Behavior.
Their results are based on responses from about 8,200adolescents across the country who were interviewed twice, about ayear apart, about a wide variety of things. The kids were ages 12to 17 at the first interview.
To measure levels of depression, the researchers examinedadolescents’ answers to 11 questions about the previous week, suchas how often they felt they couldn’t shake off the blues, feltlonely or sad or got bothered by things that normally wouldn’t fazethem.
Researchers Compared Teens In and Out of Romance
To see what love’s got to do with it, the researchers comparedresponses from adolescents who didn’t report any romanticinvolvement at either interview with those who reported it at bothinterviews. They looked at how much depression levels changedbetween interviews for each group.
The finding: The romantically involved adolescents showed abigger increase in depression levels, or a smaller decrease, thanuninvolved teens.
The difference wasn’t much. For boys of all ages, it was aboutone-half point on a 33-point scale. Girls were hit harder, with a2-point difference for girls who’d been 12 at the first interview,and diminishing with age to about a half-point difference for girlswho’d been 17.
Contradicts Adult Findings
The results were a surprise, because studies of adults haveshown 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, Joynerand Udry found evidence for three possible factors: deterioratingrelationships with parents, poorer performance in school, andbreakups of relationships.
In fact, it appeared that for boys, romance made a difference indepression only if they’d had a breakup between interviews. Forgirls, in contrast, the biggest impact from romance seemed to comefrom a rockier relationship with Mom and Dad. That was especiallyso 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 whatshe is doing with him. Presumably, their concern leads toarguments. That would be my guess.”
But it’s only a guess. The study can’t prove what caused what.Maybe girls feeling less loved at home were more likely to seekromance with a guy, rather than the other way around.
Alcohol and Delinquency, Too
Joyner and Udry also found that romance was associated with asmall decrease in happiness for girls, as assessed by differentquestions, and a small increase in alcohol problems and delinquencyin both sexes. They didn’t look for explanations for the latter twofindings.
Susan Nolen-Hoeksema, a University of Michigan psychologist whostudies depression, said the study’s findings on that topic madesense. Many researchers who work on adolescent depression “havethought that something about dating behavior and datingrelationships can be toxic to girl’s health,” she said.
The idea is that girls base their self-esteem on theserelationships more than boys do and “will contort themselves tomake these relationships work,” Nolen-Hoeksema said. “I thinkthere’s something to it.”
It makes sense that dating could be one reason why femaledepression rates start to exceed male rates around age 14 or so,she said. But lots of things can promote depression, she cautioned,and “not every girl who’s dating is depressed.”
Critic: Study Too Negative
Reed Larson, who studies adolescent emotion at the University ofIllinois in Urbana, thinks the new study focuses unfairly on love’sdownside.
His own work has tracked adolescent emotions hour-by-hour andday-by-day by having participants wear beepers, which prompt themat random times to write down how they are feeling.
Those results show adolescent love provokes “a fusillade ofstrong feelings,” both positive and negative, Larson said. Yes,there’s anger, worry, hurt, anxiety, jealousy and frustration. Butthere’s also happiness, joy, euphoria, thrills and, well, love.
“Those can oscillate within the same day,” Larson said. “Thesame child will tell us at one moment in time they’re just on topof the world because they just had this great talk with John, andthen a few hours later, they’re totally depressed because John issuddenly seeing somebody else. Then they’ll come back up becausethey had a good talk with John, and things are back on track.”
And these feelings are a big part of adolescent life, Larson andcolleagues found. In a sample of 14-year-olds to 17-year-olds, forexample, girls said real or fantasized relationships with boyscaused 34 percent of the strong emotions they’d reported. For boysthe figure was 25 percent.
Even the lower figure is about twice the rate attributed toschool and about three times the rate for family or same-sexfriends.
Most of the emotions traced to girl-boy romance were positive,but 42 percent were negative, including anger and depression.
Wyndol Furman, a psychology professor at the University ofDenver who studies adolescent romance, also cautioned that studieslike Joyner’s tell only half the story.
It’s not like romantic relationships hold only danger for teens,without any benefit, he said.
“I don’t buy that, any more than the idea that driving a car isonly dangerous,” he said. “There are risks. But are you going togive your car up?”