With so many of their daily struggles now playing out on social media, young girls’ mental health and self confidence have taken a major hit over the past six years, a new survey of thousands of girls suggests.
As adolescent and teen girls spend more time on social media platforms, constantly exposed to information and feedback from others about their appearance, successes, failures, conflicts, and more, life challenges that may have been minor blips can become magnified and take a toll on their well-being, said Lisa Hinkelman, founder and CEO of Ruling Our eXperiences, or ROX, a nonprofit focused on research and programming about girls.
The organization in October released the results of a research study about adolescent girls’ well-being, examining how girls perceive themselves and the impact of social media use on their mental health. It showed a major drop in girls’ self-confidence between 2017, the date of the group’s first survey, and 2023, the date of its second, adding to the myriad indicators of young people’s worsening mental health that have compounded over the past decade-plus, and especially since the COVID-19 pandemic. U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy earlier this year labeled young people’s declining mental health “the defining public health crisis of our time,” and said young people under age 14 shouldn’t use social media.
The ROX survey of more than 17,500 girls in 5th through 12th grades found the percentage of girls who report feeling confident has dropped in the past six years from 68 percent to 55 percent, as the amount of time they spend on social media has risen. When compared with data from 2017, girls’ confidence levels were lower at every grade level except for 12th grade, where it was unchanged at 62 percent of girls surveyed describing themselves as confident.
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. Self-confidence reached its lowest point in 9th grade, at 50 percent, down from 60 percent in 2017.
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. For 5th and 6th graders, the median amount of time they spent on social media has more than doubled since 2017.
While social media is compounding girls’ problems, it’s not the sole contributor, Hinkelman said.
“I think the easy thing to do is just blame everything on social media and say if we just got rid of it, everything would be fine, but I think it’s more complicated than that,” Hinkelman said. “What social media does is amplifies the existing challenges that are affecting adolescent girls.”
Girls are at particular risk for mental health problems, data show. They are more likely than boys to “construct their identity in relation to others” and to “allow the feedback they get from others to shape how they feel about themselves and their abilities and competencies,” Hinkelman said.
So, social media can create a vicious cycle in which girls make a post and base their self-perception on how many “likes” or interactions it receives. Or they can spend hours scrolling, comparing themselves to others, which can be draining, she said.
“If I’m a young girl, I can actually count the number of likes or checks of approval I get or don’t get, and my future behavior is influenced by that very real number,” she said. “The stakes have gotten higher in the comparison game that is seemingly inescapable.”
Social media has also influenced how girls feel about their friendships and how they address conflict. Disagreements that girls previously may have handled privately sometimes play out publicly before large, online audiences, Hinkelman said.
“I think that’s where we get this big divide with adults who have a hard time relating to girls’ lives in this moment, because they think girls are just going through the same stuff they did and it’s a part of growing up,” she said. “But, as adults, we may have gone through similar experiences, but we didn’t have the overlay of everybody knowing about it, commenting on it, or thinking it’s part of their business, then having to navigate not only the hard thing that’s happening but everybody’s reaction to what we did or didn’t do.”
That has created a generation of girls who “are so wound tight” because the “stakes feel so high.”
Girls as young as 5th grade have reported that they feel so much pressure they feel like they’re going to “explode,” according to the research.
Along with increased stress levels, more girls—and younger girls—are experiencing symptoms of depression or persistent sadness.
In the 2023 ROX 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.
That’s similar to recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that found girls are more likely than their male peers to be depressed and to have recently considered suicide.
Adults can help girls boost their confidence and self-perception by creating opportunities for girls to be successful—allowing them to lead classroom events or compete in academic contests, for example, Hinkelman said.
Simply telling girls they are “enough” isn’t effective, she said.
“Confidence is not built through compliments, it’s built through experiences, so I think where we need to focus is on the things we’re doing to provide girls with opportunities to experience success and feel competent and capable,” Hinkelman said. “I think that’s where it can turn from a story that feels pretty hopeless into one that’s hopeful and helpful.”