The CDC says girls are sad. Let us help.
The CDC reported a dramatic increase in trauma and mental health challenges for girls between 2011 and 2021. According to the latest data, three in five teen girls (57%) felt “persistently sad and hopeless” as opposed to roughly one in three (36%) in 2011. The number of girls who had seriously considered suicide increased by 60% over the past decade, and the number who had made actual attempts increased by 30%.
The CDC gathers similar data every two years, and the 2019 report was already bleak. So were additional studies during the pandemic, which documented predictably high rates of mental health concerns among all young people during COVID-19. For young women of color, threats to mental wellbeing seem to be accelerating, according to researchers like Arielle Sheftall and others who have found that the suicide rate for Black girls in particular (ages 15 to 24) has increased by nearly 60%. Seeing the latest findings confirm these trends is devastating — as is the thought that, year after year, we as a nation are not improving these outcomes.
There is no question that much of this increase in indicators of depression and self-harm is related to social media use, a case made persuasively by Bryn Austin, Donna Jackson Nakazawa, Jonathan Haidt, and others. Researchers have documented the effects of online bullying — and the barrage of messages about self-image — on young women’s well-being, with clear links to eating disorders, depression and anxiety, and suicidal ideation. In addition, researcher Jelena Kecmanovic notes, “Besides being potentially toxic on its own, long hours of social media use prevent girls from engaging in behaviors that promote well-being, such as in-person interaction with friends, sleeping and physical activity.”
An easy and frequent response is that we must get young women off of social media, or limit their hours of exposure, or regulate and moderate social media platforms to better protect users. While such efforts might help, it is unlikely at best that they will be solutions. Young people have always been drawn to books, films, music, and TV shows that adults deemed “bad for them.”
Worse, to call for decreased access to social media runs dangerously close to blaming the victim. This week’s CDC report also notes that the number of young women who report having ever been victims of sexual violence has increased by 20% over 2017, yet the response to that finding is not “stop letting yourself be abused.” In a very real sense, social media can be emotionally abusive for young women, particularly young Black and brown women and those who are gender-diverse. However, social media is also a reality — for younger and younger children, in fact — and it is not going away.
Rather than demand that social media stop being social media, or that its primary audience stop using it, we must provide resources that help young people, and particularly young women, understand how to strengthen their defenses against its most negative effects and how to create other kinds of supports in their lives. The CDC calls for several measures to mitigate the range of traumatic responses these data document: Helping young people find a greater sense of belonging at school; making sure they can access the wellness, mental health, and medical supports they may need; and better educating them about physical and emotional wellbeing, reproductive health, and other forms of self-care.
Many of these supports are already available, and have proven records of success. For example, my own organization, Girls Inc., offers pro-girl resources both in and beyond schools, including peer engagement, adult mentoring, an age-appropriate Healthy Sexuality curriculum, a “Mind + Body” initiative focused on wellness and self-care, and an ongoing commitment to advocating with girls for their rights and wellbeing. We are part of a network of similar national organizations that ensure a web of supports for young people. In a moment when K–12 schools are overburdened and community services are strained, organizations like ours bring needed focus and resources to the challenges that youth now face.
As has so long been true, young women find themselves facing enormous pressures and challenges with insufficient resources and, too often, a lack of recognition of just how urgent their needs are. Yet they are more than half of our future. That’s why these latest CDC data must become a call for genuine action. It’s past time that we as a nation provided the tools that can help girls navigate this world that is not of their making, so that they can remake the world for the better.