Until very recently, American culture has operated on the flawed notion that teenage dating and sex required little encouragement. Teenage romance was once seen as a natural part of American adolescence. This, it turns out, is completely wrong. Teenage dating is not inevitable and it’s a rapidly disappearing part of the American teenage experience. These relationships often served as inspiration for Hollywood’s tragedies and comedies, but in real life they are frequently formative and incredibly valuable for young people. Moreover, the decline of teen dating may be having an especially pernicious impact on the development of young men.
In the late 1990s, Monroe County, NY, where I grew up, launched the “Not Me, Not Now” campaign to encourage teens to abstain from sex. Sex education classes in my high school offered little information, and conversations about healthy relationships and dynamics were absent. Much of the public and political attention was focused on reducing unfortunate outcomes of teenage sex. The local campaign in my community was part of a national movement to reduce teen pregnancy. The Clinton administration made addressing teenage pregnancy a priority in their first term, proposing a “national mobilization” to combat it. In 1996, the Department of Health and Human Services launched “A National Strategy to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.”
It worked. Teen pregnancy fell steadily during the 1990s and continued to fall over the next two decades, mostly because more teens avoided sex altogether. Governmental surveys have recorded double-digit declines in teenage sexual experiences since the late 1980s.
For most Americans, the decline of teen pregnancies is a reason to celebrate; and for many, falling rates of teen sex represent an equally positive development.
But it’s not just sex that’s declined among teens; it’s romantic relationships overall. Teens are dating less. A survey conducted by the Survey Center on American Life found that only 56 percent of Gen Z adults—and 54 percent of Gen Z men—said they were involved in a romantic relationship at any point during their teenage years.[i] This represents a remarkable change from previous generations, where teenage dating was much more common. More than three-quarters of Baby Boomers (78 percent) and Generation Xers (76 percent) report having had a boyfriend or girlfriend as teenagers.
Forty-four percent of Gen Z men today report having no relationship experience at all during their teen years, double the rate for older men.
The decline in teen dating is not good for young people, especially men, since these early romantic relationships offer vital opportunities for developing relational skills and confidence
There seem to be three probable causes of the dating decline: immersive technology, parental supervision, and changing norms.
There are lots of reasons to fret over smartphones and social media (see the commentary from Jonathan Haidt for an overview). One underappreciated aspect of their usage is that they can promote passivity. Too many teens watch online imitations of life experiences instead of having their own. More teens are content watching from the sidelines rather than becoming active participants in their own lives.
Video games have also changed the social landscape, particularly for teenage boys. Half of Gen Z men report that they play video games daily, often with their friends. But in most cases online socializing is a poor replacement for real world hangouts. Fewer friends means fewer dates, too. My own research shows that spending time with friends was strongly associated with teenage dating.
Technology has certainly reduced incentives for teens to hang out in person, but parenting likely plays a role as well. Parents are far more involved in their children’s lives today than previous generations, abetted by technologies that permit them to actively monitor their behavior and whereabouts. Nothing more quickly quashes romantic aspirations than the constant hovering of helicopter parents. Teenage relationships tend to emerge in the absence of parental supervision.
But perhaps the strongest argument for why teen dating has declined is that young people simply no longer view it as a priority. Surveys show that young people put marriage and serious relationships on the backburner. Perhaps this is why research from UCLA finds that young adults (age 18 to 24) want to see less sex and romance in their television shows and movies. The preferred age for getting married has shifted steadily older over the last few decades. In 2020, Gallup found that more than half of Americans believe that the “ideal” age for men to get married is late 20s or later.
At one time, it was fairly common for high school relationships to lead to marriages—sometimes shortly after graduation. This is far less common today and less socially accepted when it does happen. Even if marriage is a goal, it is a far more distant one than it once was, and educational attainment and professional priorities supersede interest in establishing romantic relationships.
Does it matter if teens are dating less? Yes, because these early romantic relationships are important opportunities to learn crucial life skills. Few relationships are more strongly associated with long-term happiness and personal fulfillment than the one we have with our partner and spouse. For this reason alone, it’s remarkable that so many parents are ambivalent about their teenage children pursuing romantic relationships. Parents invest an incredible amount of time and energy curating and cultivating learning opportunities and enrichment activities for their children. But dating and relationships are not things most parents stress, except in the negative.
Yet these experiences are invaluable for teenagers.
The pursuit of romantic relationships is especially important for young men who are often hemmed in by conventional notions of masculine behavior. Early dating and relationship experiences are fertile ground for social learning. I’ve argued previously that male friendship does not necessarily equip men to have healthy romantic relationships:
“[Friendships] are incredibly important developmentally and offer early lessons in empathy, compassion, and reciprocity. Friendships can teach us healthy ways to manage disagreements, resolve conflict, show affection, and practice intimacy. But men and women approach friendship quite differently. Ignoring problems, minimizing feelings, taunting, and teasing are not effective ways to communicate with your partner or spouse, but it’s how a lot of men learn to communicate with each other.”
One reason many younger women chose to date older men is due to their maturity, greater emotional intelligence, and relationship experience. Financial resources matter too, but they are no replacement for being able to communicate effectively or set and respect boundaries. Critically, experience also bestows men with a sense of confidence, an essential dating commodity. Men entering the dating market with more years of relationship experience are typically better placed than those with less.
While healthy adolescent relationships are valuable learning experiences, without proper support and guidance there are of course clear risks as well. Teen dating violence and abuse is not uncommon. But that’s all the more reason why early dating experiences matter. Young people who aspire to be in a committed romantic relationship will be better able to identify the personal qualities that matter to them, and to recognize relationship red flags.
Teen dating also enables parents to provide greater support as these experiences often occur while teens are still living under their parents’ roof. Parents and other parental figures can model healthy relationship practices. Parental guidance is invaluable in helping young people develop positive romantic attachments that require compromise, flexibility and sacrifice. Romantic relationships are never without risk, but early romantic failures tend to be less costly and less complicated than they are in later years. Like so many things, it’s difficult to do from the sidelines. Learning comes through experience.
Given that most teenagers still aspire to get married, it’s puzzling that relationship experiences are not afforded more of a priority. Our research shows that these early relationship experiences are associated with long-term commitments. Americans who had a romantic relationship as a teenager are more likely to be married today or to be in a committed relationship. Sixty-two percent of Americans who had a steady girlfriend or boyfriend during most or all of their teenage years report being married today, compared to less than half (46 percent) of those who did not. The gap is even wider among younger Americans.
Obviously, this data cannot speak to relationship quality, nor does it convey anything about causality—teenage relationships do not necessarily lead people to get married. But it’s not particularly surprising that people who prioritize establishing romantic connections earlier end up getting married or involved in long-term relationships.
Not everyone is ready to navigate the complexities of romantic relationships as a teenager. It can take time for people to find their emotional footing or to sort out their sexual identity and interest. That’s fair—no one should feel pressured to date before they feel ready. A girl I liked once told me she thought I was a “bit slow” because of how long it took me to pick up on her “obvious” cues. (In case you’re wondering, I am now happily married.)
With that said, the extent to which young men lack relationship experience from their teen years may help to explain unfortunate examples of male dating behavior that crops up on social media. It also may help explain the rise of loneliness, an increasingly common teenage experience.
Young men who learn how to be good partners, who are better able to recognize the qualities in a partner that are important to them, are less likely to go through life feeling disaffected and isolated. Having a partner or spouse is not the only way of living a good life, but finding a good partner can make a huge difference.
If establishing a healthy relationship is a life goal, there is no reason that men or women should delay in developing the skills necessary to its achievement.
[i] It’s not the only evidence of a teen dating decline. Government surveys that track teenage behavior reveal a similar downward trend. Jean Twenge uncovered an even larger drop in teen dating experiences.
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Until very recently, American culture has operated on the flawed notion that teenage dating and sex required little encouragement. Teenage romance was once seen as a natural part of American adolescence. This, it turns out, is completely wrong. Teenage dating is not inevitable and it’s a rapidly disappearing part of the American teenage experience.
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