Boys more vulnerable than girls when dating starts

November 22, 1999

University Park, Pa. --- Although the stereotype says girls' self-esteem suffers the most in the earliest boy/girl romantic relationships, new research shows it's actually the boys who are more vulnerable - especially if they feel pressured into dating.

A team of researchers from Penn State and Dickinson College asked sixth, seventh and eighth graders in a semi-rural, mid-Atlantic middle school to complete questionnaires and be interviewed about their dating practices. In addition, the researchers asked them to complete telephone diaries about whom they were with and how they spent their time.

The researchers say the responses show that a majority of both the boys and girls found involvement in mixed-sex settings enjoyable and challenging, rather than stressful. However, boys who were dating but who were less than enthusiastic about having a girlfriend, had lower self-esteem than their non-dating peers or boys who were very interested in dating.

Dr. Nancy Darling, assistant professor of human development and family studies, says "Not many people have studied dating in adolescence or the relationship between the onset of dating and self esteem. We found that dating is more stressful for boys than for girls -- which is the opposite of what most people expect.

"Girls have intimacy skills," she adds. "Boys don't. The boys are more vulnerable because they fall in love faster. They also take breaking up harder than girls do throughout their lives."

In addition, the researchers write, "Boys who have been dating without expressing particular interest in dating may have been pressured into a social situation with which they were uncomfortable."

The study is detailed in the current issue of the Journal of Youth and Adolescence (Vol. 28, No. 4, 1999). The authors are Dr. Darling of Penn State's College of Health and Human Development; Dr. Bonnie B. Dowdy, assistant professor of psychology, Dickinson College; M. Lee Van Horn, former Dickinson student and now a graduate student at the University of Alabama at Birmingham; and Dr. Linda L. Caldwell, Penn State associate professor of recreation and parks management.

The researchers found that the number of adolescents who say they want to have a boyfriend or girlfriend and who report currently having one, does not change from sixth through eighth grade. However, what adolescents mean when they say they have a boyfriend or girlfriend may change as they grow older.

Researchers report that one adolescent asked during the study, "Does meeting someone in the cafeteria for lunch count as a date?"

The telephone was the primary form of out-of-school contact among sixth to eighth graders who had boyfriends and girlfriends and participated in the study.

The researchers also found that the sixth grade boys in the study reported dating almost twice as often as sixth grade girls, although boys and girls do not differ in either the number of girl/boyfriends reported nor in the percentage claiming a current boy/girlfriend. The difference between boys' and girls' reports disappears by eighth grade.

"Since boys usually date girls the same age or younger than themselves, it is probable that this difference indicates that boys and girls define dating differently," says Darling.

The researchers conclude, "Although it is possible that sixth grade boys date more frequently than sixth grade girls, it is more likely that sixth grade boys' concepts of dating are different from girls' concepts. Another possibility, of course, is that boys who lack confidence in themselves - especially with girls - exaggerate their dating experience."
EDITORS: Dr. Darling is at 814-865-2648 or by email.
Dr. Bonnie B. Dowdy is at 717-245-1577 or by email.

Penn State

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