It’s tough to be a teen girl today. Youth depression has risen significantly over the past decade, the uptick coming primarily from girls. The mother of a 17-year-old girl, I know pressures are high. Smartphones and social media fuel constant connection and comparison. Achievement expectations and perfectionism raise academic stakes, creating stress and burnout. Days are long; nights are short. Girls need lots of adult perspective, at home and school, to cope with it all.
First, those numbers: 41 percent of teen girls nationwide experience persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness. That’s nearly double the number of boys voicing similar symptoms, according to the latest Youth Risk Behavior Survey. Angst peaks during junior year, when 44 percent of girls are depressed. Many adults, then, know a girl who’s sad and stays that way for weeks at a time.
New data buttress worries about social media. A large-scale study from University College London, evaluating almost 11,000 14-year-olds in the U.K., found girls were “twice as likely to show signs of depressive symptoms linked to social media use compared to boys.” Social media use was associated with a “stepwise increase” in depression. That’s concerning, given girls’ proclivities: 43 percent spent three or more hours daily on social media.
Perfectionism creates another pressure point. A recent study in Psychological Bulletin, comparing nearly 42,000 American, British, and Canadian college students to earlier generations, found greater perfectionism today. Socially prescribed perfectionism — striving for perfection to gain others’ approval— increased most. Researchers cite cultural and economic change and competition, along with greater parental anxiety and control, as possible causes.
In top high schools, striving can reach toxic levels. Attending a high-achieving school, while conferring academic benefits, raises depression and perfectionism risks, according to Arizona State University psychologist Suniya Luthar’s research. Kids internalize this exhausting ethos: “I can, therefore I must.”
School counselor Nartarshia Sharpe sees myriad pressures for girls. The High School Member Services Representative for the N.C. School Counselor Association, Sharpe says social media is “first and foremost” among girls’ external pressures. “They feel a lot of times in their mind that they don’t measure up.”
Disconnecting daily for some period of time helps kids decompress. “I remind parents that, yes, it’s important that your child feels a part of their peer group,” Sharpe says, “but they also need to unplug when they come home. Everybody needs to unplug.” Family connection builds kids up, enabling them to face the world again.
Since she began working in Wake County in the mid-1990s, Sharpe has observed growing perfectionism and a need for recognition. It isn’t just student-driven, “a lot of parents get caught up in it as well,” she says. At the mall or grocery store, Sharpe hears “comparison conversations” between parents, discussing the number of AP classes kids are taking, or colleges’ expectations. “It’s great if it’s what that child truly wants to do,” she says, “but I’m thinking, ‘How is that child really feeling internally?’”
Sometimes therapeutic intervention is needed, of course. But parents can help kids reframe perfection pressures by sharing times they messed up or weren’t prepared, Sharpe says: “Children don’t think that adults fail.” Learning they do shows kids they can recover from failure too.
Girls are competitive about grades, scores, college acceptances, Sharpe affirms; rethinking comparison helps. She tells students, “You are your own competition. Do your best and that’s what matters the most.” About admission to prestige colleges, Sharpe challenges prevailing all-or-nothing thinking. She says, “It doesn’t matter where you start, it just matters where you finish.”
Words to live by, at any age.
Kristen Blair is a Chapel Hill-based education writer.