As the evidence has grown that the nation is in the midst of a youth mental health crisis, it’s also shown that girls are at particular risk for mental health problems.
Now, a new survey of thousands of girls from across the country offers some insight into what might be driving some of those challenges. It also shows a notable drop in girls’ self-confidence and how they perceive themselves over the past six years.
In October, Ruling Our eXperiences, a nonprofit focused on research and programming about girls, released the results of a research study about adolescent girls’ well-being.
The survey of more than 17,500 girls in 5th through 12th grades offers a glimpse into how young girls’ experiences are affecting their mental health, confidence, and relationships.
This year’s survey found that compared to 2017, the percentage of girls who report feeling confident has dropped from 68 percent to 55 percent, and that girls in 5th and 6th grades experienced the largest declines in confidence and self-perception.
“We knew that things were going to look different than the 2017 girls index, in part because of impacts from COVID and other challenges,” said Lisa Hinkelman, founder and CEO of Ruling Our eXperiences. “But, overall, I was disheartened to see such drops in confidence and self-perception in all of the girls.”
Social media affects self-perception, confidence
The survey revealed that an increase in girls’ social media use is likely contributing significantly to their troubles.
Nearly every girl who responded to the survey said they use social media to some degree, including 95 percent of 5th graders, and 46 percent reported spending six or more hours per day on social media platforms.
The median reported use of social media was between four and six hours each day. For 5th and 6th graders, the median amount of time they spent on social media has more than doubled since 2017.
Those who used social media for 10 hours each day were 25 percentage points less likely to describe themselves as confident when compared to girls who used social media for less than two hours per day.
At the same time, more than half of respondents (57 percent) said social media makes them want to change how they look, and about two-thirds reported that how they feel about their bodies makes them feel less confident.
In addition, social media use is often disrupting girls’ sleep, and about one-third reported being distracted in school because of social media.
Hinkelman said addressing these problems will take an intentional effort from parents and other adults to routinely check in with young girls to help them “make sense of the overwhelming amount of information” they see online.
Caretakers should have open conversations with girls to learn about what interests them on social media and stay up to date on trends and issues that surface on the platforms.
“Whether it is an introduction to algorithm bias, having a laugh over the newest viral sensation, or launching a hard conversation about privacy and tracking, starting the conversation helps foster an ongoing and open dialogue,” the report says.
Younger girls are struggling with their mental health, too
Compared with the group’s first survey in 2017, the percentage of girls who described themselves as confident this year was lower for girls at every grade level up until 12th grade, where it is unchanged at about 62 percent.
Fifth graders were most likely to describe themselves as confident, though the 68 percent of 5th grade girls who described themselves this way was down from 86 percent in 2017. The lowest percentage was in 9th grade, when just half of girls said they were confident, compared with 63 percent in 2017.
More girls in 5th and 6th grades (52 percent) are unsure if they’re smart enough to pursue their dream career, compared with 23 percent in 2017.
And general feelings of sadness and depression are increasing, too.
In the 2023 survey, about 40 percent of girls in 8th through 12th grades and about 35 percent in 5th through 7th grades reported feeling depressed at least four days per week.
In 2017, the percentage was closer to 30 percent in 8th through 12th grades and 20 percent in the younger grades.
Schools should be mindful of younger students’ mental health needs, the researchers suggested. Often, the bulk of mental health resources are directed toward middle and high-school-aged children, but the data make it clear that younger students need support, too, they said.
“Oftentimes, we think about these younger girls as being innocent and that their problems are childlike or not important, and that the real hard stuff doesn’t happen yet,” Hinkelman said. “I think what this data is telling us is that we have to shift our perspective because, in many ways, these girls are now experiencing the levels of distress we would typically in the past have seen in middle or high school girls.”
It’s also important for school leaders and other adults to be cautious that they don’t assume students who perform well academically are feeling well mentally, the report said.
“Oftentimes girls who perform well academically and appear to ‘have it all together’ can be overlooked for having social or emotional challenges,” the report said.
Making sure young girls feel confident about themselves is important because those who reported feeling confident were more likely to feel they belong at school; feel comfortable being their “true self” at school; get along well with other girls; want to be a leader; and be able to speak their minds.
Girls feel as if they’re “exploding” from pressure
Girls who are more confident generally feel more connected to school, according to the survey results.
About 55 percent of the respondents said they like going to school. For those who don’t, about half said drama and fighting make them dislike it.
Girls are also feeling a lot of pressure, the survey revealed.
Seventy-nine percent of girls in all age groups said they feel like they are going to “explode” because there is so much pressure on them. They attributed the pressure to grades, school, friendships, and family issues.
“I think we’re living in this world that can be confusing for girls because, on one hand, we’re telling them, ‘You can be anything you want and the sky’s the limit,’” Hinkelman said. “And, yet, they’re not internalizing those messages in the ways that I think many of us believe them to be. They’re feeling pressure.”
About three-quarters of the girls who responded said they feel like their teachers treat them like they’re smart, and 43 percent said they feel like people at their school care about them.
The researchers found that those who have adults at school who they believe care about their well-being are 65 percent more likely to want to go to school and 76 percent more likely to feel like they belong.
It’s important, then, that schools are intentional about creating opportunities to teach and practice relationship skills, the researchers concluded. Doing so gives girls the chance to develop comfort in standing up for themselves, setting and enforcing boundaries, communicating their needs, and engaging in brave conversations.
Schools could also consider reviewing existing policies and practices to make sure they are conducive to equitable and comfortable learning environments, they wrote. That could include reviewing dress code policies and doing an inventory of extracurricular and social activities geared to female students.
“There’s a whole lot in education that we can’t control in terms of how kids come into the building and what they have been exposed to, like if they had breakfast that morning or if they were up all night because their parents were fighting,” Hinkelman said. “But what we can control is what they feel like when they get there.”