The mental health crisis of America’s teenage girls
The problems girls face today include, but go beyond, technology
Fifty-seven percent of teen girls feel persistently sad and hopeless, according to a new study conducted by the CDC—a rate double that of boys. This is an increase of almost 60 percent over the past decade, and it corresponds with an equally worrisome trend of suicidal ideation among this demographic. According to this study, a third of teenage girls considered killing themselves in 2021.
Many point to the smartphone and to social media as the drivers of these trends. Writing for The New York Times, opinion columnist Ross Douthat argues that the most recent technological revolution, and the pervasiveness of online politics that came of it, are largely to blame.
I agree that these are parts of the puzzle. I was a teen girl not too long ago, and I often find myself thanking God that I finished high school right before the dawn of apps like Instagram and Snapchat, and several years before the birth of TikTok. This meant I was able to navigate an already trying season—with all the mental, emotional, physical, and social challenges that puberty brings—in-person without having to worry about many of the added complications and pressures of virtual reality.
Today, that virtual reality brings with it a barrage of filtered photos of people with seemingly perfect figures and ostensibly perfect lives. It’s awash with sexually explicit content, available even to those who don’t actively search for it, as well as predators, who routinely pressure young girls to objectify themselves for money and likes. All of this in addition to the deepening normal teenage wounds left by rejection and feelings of inadequacy: instead of learning they weren’t invited to a party last weekend, they’re watching the party happen in real-time. And instead of being able to escape the class bully when they leave school, they’re bombarded by her spiteful messages and comments all day and night.
And then there’s the political pressure that people like me, who graduated from high school in 2010, simply did not face. Modern teens have the world and all of its problems at their fingertips, and they’re told they need to take a stance on each of them. No wonder so many young people are depressed; they’ve been robbed of the simplicity of youth that many generations prior got to enjoy.
But, in my estimation, the social media and politics-centered analysis is incomplete. It’s not just the overt messages teen girls are receiving via their phones that are dragging them into depression, it’s the implicit message that all of them carry, which is that we are our own gods.
Social media makes it easy to exchange the God of Scripture for the god of self, giving us feelings of omniscience and omnipresence. It also deceives us into believing we are the centers of the universe: the content, the algorithms, the advertisements, the color schemes, are all personalized to meet our interests. Social media is a constant focusing on ourselves—how we feel, how we look, how we sound, what we want, what we like—while inflating us with a false sense of power by giving us access to an incredible amount of knowledge. We are burdened by responsibilities and roles that are only sufficiently carried by God, and it seems that we—young girls, especially—are being crushed by the weight of it.
A popular response to this new study will likely be: “We need to teach girls how to love themselves more. More self-care and self-empowerment.” But what if that’s exactly what’s killing them? What if it’s not just the social media itself, but the self-idolatry it represents that’s really driving teens into feelings of purposelessness and depression?
Girls are already being told non-stop that they’re perfect the way they are, that they’re “enough,” and that they just need to love themselves to be happy. These have been the go-to motivational mantras for years. How’s that working out for them?
The self can’t be both the problem and the solution. If inside themselves girls are finding anxiety, depression, and feelings of worthlessness, they’re not going to find the solutions to these things in the same place their problems lie. Teen girls today need what people for all of time have needed: purpose, joy, and satisfaction that exists outside of themselves, namely in the God who created them. Parents can (and should) get their kids off social media, but the trends won’t reverse until we reckon with this truth.
While social media and the chaos of our modern culture wars may be new, the core temptation facing our girls is not. It is essentially the same lie that lured Eve: “You can be like God.” Jesus was the only redemption from the effects of sin then, and He’s the only hope of redemption now. And Jesus is a sure and certain hope, and we need to get that word out to teenage girls—fast.
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