My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research and the founder/president of Data & Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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teens, dating, friendship, and school dances

When I read the Chicago Tribune’s coverage of why teens have eschewed dates for school dances, I wanted to scream. This shift has nothing to do with “the way young people view personal relationships in the age of Facebook, MySpace and Twitter” (and not just because teens don’t use Twitter in significant numbers yet). And this is certainly not because teens are being “shaped” by these technologies such that they “consider friendship the highest form of compliment, making dating, and sometimes even high school love, irrelevant.” Even in the context of the article, the supposed experts and teens are voicing very different explanations for what’s going on.

School dances have traditionally been structured around mating rituals, dating back to a point in time when parents encouraged teens to go on such structured dates in order to find the ideal partner. This is no longer the era in which we live. Parents are no longer encouraging serious relationships in high school; quite the opposite. Even teens are no longer treating high school as the place to find their future husband/wife. Decades ago, teen dating turned into a different kind of ritual, one driven by status and validation and decoupled from pair bonding. While not having a date had long been stigmatized, the cost became purely social rather than marriage.

For decades after school dances were about pair bonding, teens scrambled to get dates to school dances purely as a form of plumage – a prom date was simply proof that one wasn’t a social pariah. Many teens went to school dances with people with whom they had no sexual relations whatsoever. Yet, by the 1990s, LGBT pressures started mounting actions against heteronormative dynamics at school dances. Some schools started allowing same-sex partners to go to school dances together. In some places, teen girls started repurposing this “freedom” to opt to go to the school dance with their best friend even though there was no romantic interest involved. The date-based school dance ritual began crumbling decades ago in different ways across the country. Thankfully, schools caught up and many stopped requiring dates to attend. This, in turn, motivated many teens to eschew dates altogether.

If you’re an adult, think back to your own teenage years. How many of you hated your homecoming or prom date? How many of you went with a friend of the opposite sex with no romantic feelings? How many of you stressed about finding a date, keeping a relationship going long enough to make it to the dance, or otherwise dealing with the potential dramas of being single for the dance? Now, imagine if the school said that you no longer needed to have a date. And imagine if the social norms caught up so that not having a date was not a stigmatized reality. Would you have gone with friends and simply had a good time? Hell yeah you would’ve.

What’s happening is not a radical shift in teen friendship practices. It’s about the collapse of an outmoded, outdated mating ritual. It has nothing to do with technology. It has everything to do with social norms relieving unnecessary pressures that no one liked anyhow. Teens aren’t going date-less because friendship is suddenly more important. Teens are going date-less because it’s socially acceptable and teens haven’t wanted the pressure to have a date for decades. Dating is much simpler when you don’t have to secure a date for an important night months ahead of time and then fret about the possibility that that tenuous relationship might fall apart. Even teens who are dating would prefer to buy a single ticket, go with their friends, and meet up with their significant other at the event.

Why this is so shocking to people is beyond me. Teen dances are finally looking more like 20-something dances than images of dances from the 1950s. How do 20-somethings to to bars, clubs, and other events that involve dancing? They gather with their friends, and go out en masse. Those who are dating include their significant other in the group and there are often networks of connections to other groups going out. The fact that teens are modeling 20-somethings should not be surprising to anyone. Teens have long modeled up. Why shouldn’t they be modeling contemporary practices instead of those that only exist in the movies?

Please… can we get real about teens? Can we please realize that what they’re doing is totally logical given broader societal norms and not some radical cognitive change?

PS: Teens are still dating and many find having a significant other to be important. Some value that sig-other more than they value their friends, but the old sayings of “bros before hos” and “chicks before dicks” still stand in most communities. But to think that teen dating is gone is completely foolish. Just because teens don’t want “dates” doesn’t mean that they don’t want sig-others.

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13 comments to teens, dating, friendship, and school dances

  • I absolutely agree with you on this. I have two children who are in their late teens, so I have been through all this with them recently. Their high school dances have been about looking good as much as anything. They just wanted to have fun, not find a life-partner.

  • I wholeheartedly agree that Facebook and Myspace are not the cause for dateless dances – however on a larger issue I question the value of not dating or “gong steady”.

    I am going to go way out on a limb here and say that although the practice may seem antiquated it does have some redeeming qualities. I think that learning early on what it takes to commit to someone is a valuable lesson especially for a young man. The process of dating teaches you vital lessons on the implications of your actions. Go to a dance with a date and disappear with someone else, you learn pretty quickly what it means to hurt someones feelings, and ultimately you are held accountable for your actions. As for the sentiment “bros before hos” I think that is a radical shift from when I was in high school back in the 80’s, (this was in Canada so maybe that was cultural). When your buddy got a girlfriend he was gone, you were chopped liver and her authority was not to be challenged. If that was not the case then he was clearly not committed to her and she knew in no uncertain terms why he continued to date her – sex. A culture of putting your friends ahead of your significant others is a one way ticket to failed relationships. I think that you need to hold a young mans feet to the fire when it comes to commitment because if you don’t then they won’t.

    In any event the purpose comment was not to preach – more I don’t think getting a prom date was such a bad thing – if anything it meant you had to get off your butt and interact and commit.

    Thanks for a great post as usual and I hope my comments do not come across as being prudish I am merely speaking for the generation that knew all the words to “Sunday Bloody Sunday”.

    Cheers – Eric

  • Don’t know if you’re interested with an overseas perspective, but I was a teen in the 80’s in France, and we didn’t have anything remotely close to formal proms. As teens, we went to school dances with friends – not with dates.

  • @ Eric:

    I think what she meant is that school dances lost merely their function of a platform for the openly (in the sense of justification) fulfilment of a certain ‘social duty’, and thus that it is rather an adjustment in the teens’ perception of ‘oneself + relationship’ or ‘oneself + friendship’ and no (as the article claims) dramatic societal change caused by the use of new communication devices.

    I can see that.

    We don’t have proms or school dances or whatever you call it in Germany. I guess regular highschool graduate ceremonies are not the same, are they? (Because you have parents and family attending them and I haven’t seen that in US Highschool movies … so I figure it must be something different.)

    However, it doesn’t mean that these lessons “on learning early on what it takes to commit to someone” are missed out. No, I think, they are still played in the same theater, just on another stage. And I agree with you, that it is absolutely crucial to make these experiences at an early age but I doubt that a.) school dances were always the ne plus ultra conditions to learn this lessons and b.) that everybody was already at the point to agree with the experience. For some people it just takes a long way round to get to the point where others were 5 years ago / or will be in 5 years … and that’s o.K.

    As far as the whole “bros before hos” thing goes: If you thought the articles’ argumentation through, then there would be a significant prospective decline in engagements, marriages, babyshowers or other traditional-offspring-raising practices in the next decades. Well, I doubt it.

    Gotta go, we’re just having an invasion of Asian lady bugs outside … exciting!

  • I’m with Karine on this. Been a teen in Belgium in the nineties, and we don’t date. Going out means going to a dance with your friends, where you meet other friends, not dating. You might meet a significant other at a dance, where there’s much opportunity for drunken debauchery (dances were never school dances and drinking is allowed from 16), but it’s also very well possible you meet someone in school, at your sports club or where-ever. Most of these relationships weren’t of the serious kind — but are still percieved as very serious business by the people involved. Even though it might have felt like it, you were never considered a social pariah because you couldn’t get a boyfriend/girlfriend.

  • Point well taken, but what prompted this shift in attitude? This is reflecting how teens date overall now — they’re much more frank about “hooking up” rather than dating than I was in 1994. What’s allowing them to be more realistic and honest about the actual practices than our generation? I applaud it, but I don’t quite understand what made the shift happen in the first place. I’m 32 and was much closer to my parents’ generation of pin-the-corsage-on-the-future-wife than I was to the more loosely organized dating schemes of teenagers today.

  • Autumn – I think that there’s huge variability and has been for a long time. You may have been more like your parents’ generation but I was definitely more like this generation (although knew folks who weren’t). I think with each generation, there are folks who are similar and different to the previous generations. That said, the media covers only the differences to their own experiences or to the image that they presume to be normative. It’s really hard to track these trends in a meaningful way. The overt measures – like teen pregnancy – suggest that teens are more responsible now than when we were teens. But getting at hookups and perception of dating is really hard to do with quantitative measures.

  • Even though I agree with the basic line and the call to get more real on the underlying issue I wonder how realistic that call itself may be? How many generations before ‘us’ called the previous one outmoded and out of touch with things as they were? Each generation seems to have – and sticks slavishly to – their share of moral panics and to some extent this is exactly what allows teenagers to grow up: to re-define themselves, partly in sharp contrast to all what their parents defined as marking their identity and finally to move on into adulthood just to discover one day that they are the ones who are morally panicky.
    http://britbohlinger.blogspot.com

  • @ Anna – very good point – that was what she was talking about. Also I never thought of it from a European perspective – and it makes a lot of sense. I guess lessons are learned in other ways, I had my North American blinders on, sorry about that.

    As for the “Bros before Hos” reference – I don’t understand what you mean by “a significant prospective decline in engagements, marriages, babyshowers or other traditional-offspring-raising practices in the next decades.”. My main point was any guy I know who has had that attitude also is not nice to his wife or girlfriend – I think that is more where I was going with my comments.

    Good luck with the – Asian lady bugs!

    @ Britta
    I think you are right on the money with your comments.

    Cheers – Eric

  • @ Eric: Thanks for comments.
    On the second one I guess I was a wee bit to absolute. I thought the author meant that less dating in the teenage years would lead to a decline of young or even teenage couples who found their match in highschool or collage already and then stayed together. As if highschool were the only platform for finding your prospective partner. That’s why I joked about a decline in weddings and new borns.

    I now get what you meant. I recently read a really bad article about a related issue in a really bad German magazine (I was on a plane and that was pretty much the only magazine you could actually read besides various tabloids… .) which cited an US socialist called Michael Kimmel, doing research on American men in their 20s. I thought the subject to be very interesting. Unfortunately the article came out quite single-edged.

    Have a look: http://www.focus.de/panorama/boulevard/gesellschaft-bis-anfang-30-in-den-flegeljahren_aid_334704.html

    However, Kimmel said that while in the 60s 2/3 of all 30-year old men had completed an education, found a partner, married, bought a house and had kids, in 2000 only 1/3 of all 30-year olds had accomplished the same. The author of the article uses this hook to go on with ‘guyland’ … and spring-break and getting jobs through ‘connections’ rather than ‘achievement’ (as a very prominent example he names the current US president). Finally he ends up at the woman of today who – apparently – has the superpower to make even these “kind of guys” commit to something.
    Ugh!

    Anyhow, the final sentence of the article is nice and I wish it were true.

    If you speak a little German, it’s a pretty easy read. No difficult sentences or phrasing. Pure entertainment. Good for the plane. 🙂

    @danah:

    “That said, the media covers only the differences to their own experiences or to the image that they presume to be normative.”

    How about comparing TV-shows from the 60s / 70s / 80s / 90s. One may find “normal” and “abnormal” behavior or perception in soap-operas of a certain decade/time and relate it to the general societal perception of every day life. That’d be actually a fun topic to write about. I agree that a qualitative approach would be rather unsuitable.

    (Watching a reptetion of the X-Files recently, some friends and I realized that there was hardly any show with such a complex set of conspiracy before the 1990s than you can find now with “Lost” and “24” or “Prison Break”. I think, this tells you already a lot about politics and society today.)

  • Max

    no, no, no. as a current college student, i certainly feel a part of the generation you’re describing, and i recognize what new “social habits” are adapted to deal with a date-free social organization. college students are not comfortable going out, one-on-one, unless expectations have been established while drunk and hooking up the night before. relationships are initiated by hook-ups, and it’s a fucking shame (excuse my personal editorial).
    the expectations are more largely built around impressionable peers, and the rise in narcissism in recent past has meant more establishment of the expectation that casual sex is better than an emotional relationship. this is obviously a generalization, but i’ve seen this happen too many times to count. there are obvious dynamics to attraction, including unavailability and subtle generousity, but my generation is incapable when it comes to figuring out what types of stable relationships they are interested in.

  • My boys are in gr 8 / 10. The elder is autistic and doesn’t ‘date’, although he wants to. The younger has maintained this entire school year that he and his friends don’t date because, “Nothing is going to happen anyway, we’re too young.” He goes to the dances and is very popular. It seems to me that these kids are practical and efficacious regarding relationships, where previous (very previous) generations were more ‘programmed’ to emulate. I also agree that ‘friending’ and socializing in general on facebook has supplanted r/l bf gf experiences for adolescents. (around my son’s school anyway).

  • You know, I’m in my senior year of high school, and I don’t necessarily agree with this. You’re not a social pariah if you don’t rock up with a partner, but it is expected that you do have one. Not having one, frankly, can make you stick out like a sore thumb.

    Dating is still kind of beatified. The kids that can hold a relationship for anything longer than a few months are granted near-holy status. I was with my last boyfriend for just under 18 months, and encountered surprise every time I mentioned it. That, in a way, really is depressing. Has our society sunk so low that the mere idea of being committed to one person, for any reasonable length of time, is laudable?

    That being said, no-one really particularly cares for dating any more. If we do take someone to the formal, it’s done as mostly friends. You do have your mushy couples, the token ones that are all over each other, but really, a lot of them are just there to muck around. Dating is seen as a casual thing, at my school. Though, I know some people who have tried to hold together bad relationships simply so they will not be alone at school events.

    ::shrugs:: Our generation is very much confused.