There is no shortage of potential causes: Overparenting, screens and social media, fierce academic and athletic competition, political rigor, social injustices, climate concerns, gun violence, and virtual learning among others. What gets obscured when we lump all young people together, however, is that some demographic groups are particularly vulnerable to psychological problems and may disproportionately account for the overall trend.
In my practice and that of my colleagues, there are two girls between the ages of 10 and 14 who have struggled more than in the past. It’s long been believed that middle school is the hardest time to get through, especially for girls, but a confluence of recent societal and biological trends has led to a perfect storm for two girls.
A recent study of 10- to 15-year-old British girls, for example, found that behavioral difficulties and life dissatisfaction has grown more in this group of girls than boys during the pandemic, compared to the period before the pandemic. Another study, with Canadian and Australian girls, reported more anxiety and depression compared to boys over the same time period.
Further, The US National Survey on Drug Use and Health was found that the percentage of girls aged 12 to 17 who experienced at least one major depressive episode in the past year increased from 12 percent to 25 percent between 2010 and 2020. For boys, the increase was 5 to 9 percent over the same period.
And researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that emergency room admissions for self-harm doubled for girls aged 10 to 14 between 2010 and 2014, while remaining largely unchanged for other demographic groups.
Long-standing research shows that girls and boys initially do not differ much in their levels of anxiety and depression. But in the high school years, girls become much more depressed and somewhat more anxious, and these differences persist into adulthood. What happens during this critical period to make girls especially vulnerable?
“Puberty interacts with stress to make girls prone to depression, self-harm and other psychological problems,” said Mitchell J. Prinstein, chief science officer of the American Psychological Association (APA) and author of “Popular: Finding Happiness and Success in a World That Cares Too Much About the Wrong Kinds of Relationships.” “And the amount and variety of stress increases over two years.”
of hormonal and neural changes of puberty occur just like the stress associated with appearance, family, school, social life and extracurriculars grow. During the high school years, research has revealed that girls generally start caring much more than boys about how they fit into the world and what their peers think of them. And this is an area in which they have only limited control.
“Girls’ brain areas involved in sensing social evaluation become more active during puberty,” said Jennifer S. Silk, professor of clinical and developmental psychology at the University of Pittsburgh. “And the more active this part of the brain is, the more at risk it is for depression, anxiety and even suicide.”
At the same time, girls face the same pressures as boys that come with more serious academics and, for example, sports requirements in high school. But research suggests that they often do take more to heart the message that you should excel in everything. Between the ages of 12 and 13, the percentage of girls who said they were not allowed to fail increased from 18 to 45 percent.
“Tween girls work so hard to be perfect everywhere for everyone that they inevitably fail and are exhausted by the time they get home,” said Phyllis L. Fagell, clinical professional counselor, school counselor and author of School Matters Middle School: The Top 10 Skills Kids Need to Thrive in High School and Beyond—And How Parents Can Help.” “Many would be surprised to hear how harshly they judge themselves and how self-critical their inner dialogue sounds.”
And girls often use less active coping strategies when dealing with difficulties. While boys engage more in distraction, for example, physical activity and concrete problem solving, past research has found that girls often dwell on their problems and negative emotions. This tendency to overthink and regurgitate negative content, either alone or with a friend, too growth with puberty.
Social changes further hurt girls
Puberty has been starting earlier during the last three decades in girls; the trend for boys is much less pronounced. It’s not clear why this might happen, but changes in nutrition, environmental toxins and stress have all been suggested. The pandemic seems to have accelerated the trend. Unfortunately, the early onset of puberty has been linked to depression, anxiety, substance abuse and other psychological problems in girls.
The most discussed contributor to the increase in youth mental health problems is the use of technology. Although overall research on this link has been inconclusive, some studies suggest that girls appear to be particularly negatively affected from social media.
After years of slow but steady growth in social media activity, today among them they use it 17 percent more than in 2019. It’s no surprise that girls are more engaged in social networks, while boys play more video games. The problem is that girls’ higher use of social media affects them more than boys. The more time they spend on Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, and TikTok, among others, the more likely they will experience depression, low self-esteem, poor body image, worse sleep and other mental health problems.
“In general, girls are more likely to engage in comparisons and be influenced by interpersonal feedback. And these tendencies predisposed them to depression,” said Prinstein. “Now those processes are enormously amplified with social media.”
or JAMA Network Study published this year, with 84,011 participants between the ages of 10 and 80, found that the relationship between social media use and life satisfaction is more negative among young teenage girls than any other demographic group. This finding suggests that two years may be a critical period during which girls should stay away from social media as much as possible.
In addition to being potentially toxic in itself, long hours of social media use prevent girls from engaging in behaviors that promote well-being, such as in-person interaction with friends, sleep, and physical activity.
For example, eighth graders who meet their friends “almost every day” fell from more than 50 percent in the 1990s to about a quarter in 2015—and likely less now.
“What started before the pandemic just got worse with restrictions on socializing and school and personal activities,” said Deborah Roth Ledley, a clinical psychologist in Philadelphia and co-author of “Children’s Worry Workbook.” “I’ve seen it affect girls badly because they’ve completely moved their social world online.”
Parents should be aware that, with the onset of puberty, their daughters may need more support than before. A good place to start is to examine the amount of stress their daughters are feeling and, if necessary, help them reduce the pressure or the number of scheduled obligations.
“Our study of two girls early in the pandemic showed that, somewhat surprisingly, many were feeling freer, had more time to sleep and relax,” Silk said. “We can see it as a pandemic line, but also as a wake-up call that our girls are very stressed.”
We can counter girls’ perfectionism and self-criticism with self-compassion.
“Be sure to model self-compassion in the way you treat yourself, because young people are looking up to us even when we think they’re just focused on their peers,” said Karen Bluth, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel. Hill and the author of the audiobook “Self-compassion for girls: A guide for parents, teachers, and coaches.” And then help them question the validity of the self-critical voice by asking ‘Is this true all the time?’ “Is it really, really true?” “Are you absolutely sure, without a doubt?” “
When it comes to the most frequently accessed social media and smartphones, try to push both until high school. “Give them a flip phone until they’re 14, and always put the screens away by 9 p.m.,” Prinstein said. Online organization Wait until the 8th can provide useful advice.
To introduce your tweens, put screen policies together by creating a family media plan. Then commit to it, applying consequences if necessary. Be sure to model healthy technology-related behaviors, such as having screen time and space, not sleeping on your phone, and discussing what you watch online.
Talk to your daughters about their values and goals in using social media.
“Appeal to their social justice beliefs, not wanting to be manipulated by companies,” Fagell said. “And discuss empathy – thinking about how their online involvement affects others. This will strengthen their sense of agency and combat helplessness and hopelessness.”
Bluth suggested inviting two girls to experiment with social media by varying the type of use (passive vs. active or interactive), time (first thing in the morning vs. late vs. late at night), and duration, and checking how they felt the most. after.
“Ask them if they feel good, connected, have a sense of purpose versus feeling bad about themselves, sad, anxious, lonely,” she said.
Finally, always keep the lines of communication open. Be curious about girls’ lives, but don’t bombard them with questions or pressure them. Share your high school struggles and misadventures. And most of all, listen.