Please note: This article contains reference to suicide and self-harm. Please reach out to the services listed at the end of the article if you need to talk.
The transformation from being a girl to a woman has always been a bit bumpy. I can still vividly remember struggling with dark moods, hating my body, being incredibly critical of myself and desperate for approval and acceptance – and that was 50 years ago.
When I was researching my latest book GIRLHOOD I came across a 2021 report on Exploring the Decline in Wellbeing for Australian Girls which showed that young women are significantly more likely than their male peers to have anxiety and depression, lower self-esteem and, some evidence suggests, lower resilience.
Research clearly reveals that many of our girls are swimming in a world full of opportunity yet floundering in unprecedented levels of confusion, self-doubt, self-harm, anxiety and stress. Some argue that our girls’ confidence drops by 30 per cent between the ages of eight and 14 – that should be an alarm bell for everyone not just parents!
Researchers have also highlighted increasing rates of depression, particularly among young women, with a 2022 report indicating these rates have doubled over the past 14 years.
“Depression has become more common in adolescents and young adults over the past decade. There are also worrying signs of an increase in depressive symptoms in children since the COVID-19 pandemic,” warns Professor Sam Harvey, Executive Director and Chief Scientist of the Black Dog Institute.
The Black Dog Institute report, Turning the tide on depression: A vision that starts with Australia’s youth, examines depression, which is a serious mental health condition which impacts people’s lives and wellbeing, across four groups: children, adolescents, young adults and young First Nations peoples.
Across a sample of Year 8 students in Australia, 15.1% reported “clinically significant symptoms of depression, with the proportions being significantly higher in girls (19.1%) compared to boys (7.6%)”.
A very worrying trend that the report also highlights is that: “Further analyses showed that, among depressed adolescents, girls were significantly more likely to engage in intentional self-harm than boys, although depressed boys and girls did not differ in likelihood of suicidal ideation or suicide attempt”.
Social psychologist Professor Jon Haidt wrote recently of the situation in the US where the CDC’s bi-annual Youth Risk Behavior Survey showed that “most teen girls (57%) now say that they experience persistent sadness or hopelessness (up from 36% in 2011), and 30% of teen girls now say that they have seriously considered suicide (up from 19% in 2011).”
So what is going on?
Professor Haidt writes that the ‘big surprise’ revealed by the CDC data is that COVID hasn’t had a huge impact on the overall trends in the US. These trends have simply been “marching on as they have since around 2012”.
So what has happened in the past 10-12 years? Let’s be honest, the world feels like a nastier place than it was when we were teenagers. The 24/7 new cycle, often over-sensationalised, constantly reports on the negative side of humanity. Teen girls I have spoken to recently tell me how they worry for the future, how deeply they are concerned about the war in Ukraine, the increasing incidence of natural disasters from floods, earthquakes and bushfires, and the impact of climate change.
I started writing about this last month – that the giant tech companies are unashamedly altering the landscape for our children and our adolescents. Once they discovered that individuals stay engaged online far longer when they see negative content, they manipulated the algorithms to ensure that is what happens to every single one of us.
The longer we stay engaged, the more advertisements we see and the more money the tech companies make. We should be absolutely outraged. Given how impressionable, how vulnerable and how underdeveloped the executive function of our children’s brains are, being constantly marinated in negative content has to impact their mental wellbeing. I know it depresses me some days, and I seldom spend time scrolling mindlessly.
On top of these blatant manipulations that happen invisibly, the advertisements that our children see and hear endlessly shape their minds to ensure they become rampant consumers and users, that they eat unhealthy food, drink alcohol and gamble.
Again, we should be outraged that this is what is happening to our kids, especially in the most sensitive window of their lives that shapes who they are and who they can become.
What else happened around 2012 in multiple countries to cause this decline in our teens’ mental wellbeing? Well, Haidt points out that around this time (in 2010), the first iPhone with a forward-facing camera was released. Suddenly our kids and teens had whole new way of relating to the world and observing themselves.
I hate to think how much darker my moods would have been, had I been able to spend even more hours comparing myself to the images of other girls online, images that had been altered with filters and airbrushing. Not only that, but the constant assessing of whether what I share had been accepted, acknowledged, validated or celebrated many times a day! I’ve had many teen girls tell me that when one of their Insta posts in the morning has not had enough acknowledgement, they struggle to get through the day. Quite honestly, the dark side of constant access to social media is damaging our girls especially.
Researchers have been arguing for a long time that there was no evidence that social media is responsible for the increase in mental unwellness of our young people, especially our girls. There was a correlation but not causation. However, it seems the evidence has gotten much stronger, as Haidt and his colleague’s research shows.
“The Collaborative Review doc that Jean Twenge, Zach Rausch and I [Jon Haidt] have put together collects more than a hundred correlational, longitudinal, and experimental studies, on both sides of the question. Taken as a whole, it shows strong and clear evidence of causation, not just correlation. There are surely other contributing causes, but the Collaborative Review doc points strongly to this conclusion: Social Media is a Major Cause of the Mental Illness Epidemic in Teen Girls”.
– Professor Jon Haidt, Social Media is a Major Cause of the Mental Illness Epidemic in Teen Girls. Here’s the Evidence. 23 February 2023. After Babel substack.
*This article is part of Jon Haidt’s Substack so you do need to subscribe to read it but you can subscribe for free and it is well worth it to read this fascinating article.
Of course the problem is bigger than social media (but social media is a BIG part of it)…
As Haidt writes (and I have been arguing for years), there has also been a ‘rewiring of childhood’ that’s been happening for a couple of decades now. Play has been eroded and formalised learning has been pushed down into the precious early years. You might say that our kids are heading into adolescence with a less solid foundation as a result.
So we can’t just blame the excessive and unhealthy use of social media for the rise in depression, anxiety and stress related disorders in our girls. However, the heightened level of sexualisation that have also been facilitated through apps, streaming services, and other online activities have increased the objectification of our girls.
And as we’ve seen in recent years, too often we see (as Safe on Social report) that social media gives the loudest microphone to the most dangerous people. When we add in the unhealthy influences of porn, which portrays that girls are to be used and abused for the entertainment of men, no wonder they’re struggling to find hope and optimism in our world during this sensitive window of transformation.
The ages 12 to 14 have always been tricky in terms of the growth of emotional and social intelligence. The pressure to fit in is enormous and continues through until the late 20s and early 30s , if not longer.
Relational aggression, nastiness, bullying (and that includes that behaviour online, where the disinhibition effect – where we are more likely to do and say things we wouldn’t in real life is often much worse) also rips away our girls sense of self and self-esteem. Girls have died by suicide due to trolling and attacks from other girls and boys. Rachel Downie created the online platform Stymie to make it easier for students in schools to anonymously report cruel online activity. I explored this with Rachel in an episode of Parental as Anything. I wish every high school had Stymie.
Body dissatisfaction is quite normal in this window of girls’ lives. Michelle Mitchell in her brilliant new book TWEENS: What kids need now, before the teenage years quotes statistics from the Australian Institute of Family Studies that the majority of 10 to 11-year-olds are trying to control their weight. Also, by the time our kids are adolescents, 83% of boys and 86% of girls will experience “dissatisfaction with the size, shape or function of one or more parts of their body”.
However, the constant marination of sexualised images, of the importance of thin, and the endless fascination with make-up, fashion and the preferred way to look, can create enormous distress for girls hiding in their bedrooms.
It has stoked the fire of self-hatred and that can create enormous big feelings, which can be really difficult to process and are definitely a contributing factor to the higher levels of self-harm that are occurring, mainly in girls.
How appropriate is it that our Australian of the Year 2023 has dedicated her life to changing the unhealthy messaging around body image? Thanks Taryn.
How can we help our girls in this negative world?
- Ensure she has an aunty or wise grandmother figure in her life – any lighthouse figure – who always keeps tabs on her with love and lightness.
- Keep affirming to her that no girl is defined by her appearance. She is so much more than that. You can weave this into conversation by simply commenting on women you see doing things in the world, characters in shows you might watch together, or women in the news.
- Help your daughter discover her spark, what excites her in life, and nurture that.
- Explore with your daughter healthy and respectful ways of navigating the digital world – and to limit access to social media or to curate her feed to avoid the toxicity.
- Have conversations about how unethical and corrupt major tech companies are and how they don’t care about the harm they cause young people, especially girls.
- Do everything you can to get your daughter’s school to invite inspirational educators to work with them to challenge the negativity of the world around them. Enlighten Education and Collective Shout are just two of these fabulous organisations. If you have to, fundraise so that your school can afford it.
- Ensure your daughter knows about the helpful and supportive sites she can visit when she finds the going tough. Make sure to display the Lifeline and Kids Helpline numbers in an obvious place in your house.
- Always reassure your daughter that she can come to you when she experiences harm in the digital space and you will support and help her. Tell her there is nothing you can’t handle.
- Remind your daughter she is so much more than a body and encourage her to focus on what her body can do, rather than just on what it looks like.
- Model to her the power of feminine solidarity, where girls and women focus on lifting each other up, rather than pulling each other down. You might consider exploring a rite of passage program for her (either through an established group or by creating your own).
- Watch inspirational movies, and documentaries and read books that celebrate strong, healthy women that build hope and optimism. There are some fabulous positive teen magazines that will help in this area too such as Teen Breathe and Pippen.
- Encourage her to become a part of the solution and to challenge the toxicity and negativity that she finds in the world.
Maybe start here:
I will finish this blog with the final words I wrote in in GIRLHOOD:
“Let us all step forward, lean in and surround our girls with safe big people, capable of loving, fiercely and unconditionally, to give them the best start in life.”
Light can always dispel darkness and hope is powerful. If we can collectively step forward and create a safe base for our girls to rest, recover and restore themselves whenever the negativity of our world surrounds them, we can shift these negative statistics. We may even save a life.
If you need someone to talk to, please call:
- Lifeline on 13 11 14
- Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800
- Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467
- Headspace on 1800 650 890
- QLife on 1800 184 527
If you found this article helpful, you may also want to check out Maggie’s webinar Calming Teen Stress and Anxiety and/or her masterclass with Michelle Mitchel on Understanding Our Gorgeous, Confused Girls which focuses on raising girls in the tween/teen years.
Image credit: Deposit Photos / Lopolo