Youth Culture Window
Girls get a manicure and pedicure. Guys get a haircut and call up a friend to brag about who they’re going out with that night. These are just a few of the things teenagers do before the date.
But what are they doing during the date?
Ahhhhh, dating…the complicated and awkward attempt of putting one’s best foot forward, with the hopes of fooling another into thinking life can’t continue without them. As stressful and as tedious as dating usually is, plenty of teens still do it. A report entitled “Kiss and Tell,” published by The National Campaign to Prevent Teen and Unplanned PregnancyM, found that seven in ten teens say that most of their friends are in romantic relationships.
That’s a lot of dating!
Parents and youth workers have long-recognized that teenagers can experience tremendous highs and desperate lows when it comes to dating. When the Facebook profile changes from “single” to “in a relationship,” the words of Charles Dickens have never been truer: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”
The Worst of Times
Let’s go ahead and get the bad news out of the way. Not everything is roses and candy in teenage romantic relationships these days.
In the Kiss and Tell report, researchers found that 17% of teens say they don’t know anyone who serves as an example of a healthy relationship. As unfortunate as that is, the results of that reality are far worse. It becomes little wonder why researchers have been documenting unsettling findings in the areas of sex, pregnancy, and even violence, as it relates to teen dating.
One of the things we know teenagers are doing on dates is having sex. Very recently, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) released figures that showed teen birth rates increased in 2006, the latest year for available data. Until then, teen pregnancy had been in a 14 year decline. In 2006, teen birth rates “rose sharply” by 3.5% amongst girls between the ages of 15 and 19.
Some folks think the problem stems from media that is unrealistic in terms of teen pregnancy. “TV shows with pregnant mothers don't show the morning sickness, the swollen feet, the more uncomfortable sides of pregnancy,” says Janice Crouse, of the Beverly LaHaye Institute. Her theory gains credibility with Rand Corporation’s discovery that 25% of 12-17 year old girls who viewed the most sexual content on TV were also involved in a pregnancy, compared with only 12% of those who watched less. Between recent films like Juno and Knocked Up, and TV shows like The Secret Life of American Teenagers, not to mention the host of teen celebrities who became pregnant in 2008, there is no shortage of attention placed on teen pregnancy these days.
Unfortunately, the bad news about dating doesn’t end with teen sex and pregnancy. A rising number of teens are also undergoing abuse in dating relationships.
Abuse and violence linked to teen dating is rising at such a high rate that several states have begun to increase their efforts to identify abuse (in its various forms) in teen relationships. Studying abuse in teen dating relationships has many of the same problems that studying abuse in adult relationships does. However, here is what we know:
- 1 in 11 adolescents reports being a victim of physical dating abuse (CDC 2006).
- 1 in 5 adolescents reports being a victim of emotional abuse (Halpern et al. 2001).
- Dating abuse occurs more frequently among black students (13.9%) than among Hispanic (9.3%) or white (7.0%) students (CDC 2006).
This growing problem has actually given birth to websites that help teenagers draw a line about what is acceptable behavior in dating relationships, and what is not.
Fortunately, not everything is gloom and doom with teen dating relationships.
The Best of Times
In spite of this cloud of funk currently hanging over teen romances, there is some good news.
Going back to the Kiss and Tell report once more, most teenagers (68% of boys and 69% of girls) say that their friends are in “healthy” romantic relationships. Granted, what makes a relationship “healthy” might be a bit relative, but we do know that trust and honesty are big players in the mind of teenagers. 40% of guys and 48% of girls rank trust as the most important component in a healthy relationship, with honesty finishing a close second. Further, less than 3% of interviewed teens say “looks” or “popularity” mattered most.
Here’s more good news. 35% of teenagers claimed “parents” to be the biggest influence on their dating practices. Here are the contenders:
Friends = 28%
Maybe the best news yet is that a majority of teens (51% of guys and 53% of girls) think parents should start talking with them about sex, love, and relationships when they are 13 or 14 years old. (27% of guys and 30% of girls say the conversation should start even earlier, at age 12 or younger!)
Media = 4%
Siblings = 4%
Religious leader/Faith community = 3%
Boyfriend or girlfriend = 2%
Other family member = 2%
Making Sense of the Numbers
Parents and youth workers know there are dangers and risks associated with dating. Hey, once upon a time, we did it ourselves! With all the stats and the research on teens and dating/sex/relationships, the one that should capture our attention is that parents hold the key to influencing who and how teenagers date today, and that a majority of teens are open to conversations about love/sex/dating.
Parents need to take advantage of the pillar that teenagers have placed them on, and do all that they can to positively affect the way dating happens. If parents do not act quickly and effectively, they may slide down in order of importance on the list of influencers mentioned above. The last thing parents need is for other teenagers or the media giving instruction to their kids about dating.
TheSource4YM.com has several resources to help youth workers deal with the subject, like this one, but we also provide a host of free resources to parents on the subject, as well. We just want to do all that we can to help you make the biggest difference you can in the lives of teenagers you love.
David R. Smith
is a 15-year youth ministry veteran who helps youth
workers and parents through his writing, training, and speaking. David specializes in sharing the
gospel, and equipping others do the same. He co-authored his first book this year,
Ministry By Teenagers
. David provides free
resources to anyone who works with teenagers on his website, DavidRSmith.org
David resides with his wife and son in Tampa, Florida.
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