Why are adolescents in crisis? It’s not just social media

Academic anxiety. Post-confinement discomfort. Anguish in social networks.

Study after study says that America’s young people are in crisis, facing unprecedented mental health challenges that affect adolescent girls in particular. Among the most blatant data: A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that nearly 60% of American girls reported persistent sadness and hopelessness. Rates are also increased in children, but about half are affected.

Adults offer theories about what’s going on, but what do the teens themselves say? Are social networks the root of your problems? Are her male partners somehow immune or part of the problem?

The Associated Press interviewed five girls in four states and agreed to publish only their names due to the sensitive nature of the issues they discussed. The teens offered a sobering, and sometimes surprising, insight.

“We’re so strong and we’ve been through so, so much,” said Amelia, a 16-year-old girl from Illinois who loves to sing and wants to be a surgeon.

She also has depression and anxiety. Like 13% of US high school girls surveyed in the government report, she is a survivor of a suicide attempt. Hospitalization after the 2020 attempt and therapy helped. But Amelia has also faced bullying, toxic friendships and menacing threats from a boy at school who she said she “deserved to be raped.”

More than 1 in 10 girls said they had been forced to have sex, according to the CDC report, the first increase seen in the regular government survey. Sexual threats are just one of the burdens teens say they face.

“We are trying to survive in a world that wants to get us,” Amelia said.

Emma, ​​an 18-year-old aspiring artist from Georgia with attention deficit disorder and occasional depression, says worries about school and college are a big source of stress.

“Lately in me and my friends, I realize how exhausted everyone is with the pressures of the world and social problems and where they are going to go in the future,” Emma added. “All these things build up and collapse.”

15-year-old Zoey was raised in Mississippi by a strict but loving single mother who pressures her to succeed in school and in life. She echoes those sentiments.

“School can be stressful and impact your mental health so much that you don’t even…recognize it, until you’re in this space where you don’t know what to do,” Zoey said. She has also had friendship problems that ended in a deep depression and she felt the discomfort of being the only black girl in the class.

Several girls said they face additional pressure from societal standards that focus too much on how they look.

“A lot of people see the bodies of women and girls as sexual,” Emma said. “It’s overwhelming to have all these things forced on us.”

The #MeToo movement started when these girls were very young, but it has intensified during the pandemic and they are very aware of unwanted sexual advances.

Children are less aware, they suggest. Girls mention rude jokes, inappropriate touching, sexual threats, or actual violence. Girls say the unwanted attention can be overwhelming.

“We deserve not to be sexualized or insulted, because we are children,” Amelia said.

Siya, an 18-year-old from New Jersey, said almost every girl she knows has faced sexual harassment. “That’s been normal for me,” she said.

“When you walk alone as a child, you automatically find yourself in this vulnerable situation,” Siya said. “I think that’s very sad. I don’t know what it feels like not to have that fear.”

Makena, a high school senior in Mississippi, said she and her friends sometimes wear baggy clothes to hide their shapes, but guys “comment, no matter what.”

She has had depression and therapy, and said she grew up in a community where mental health is still stigmatized.

“Often in the black community we are not as encouraged to express emotions” because of what previous generations endured, said Makena, who works with an adolescent health advocacy group. “We are expected to have hearts of steel,” she said. “But sometimes it’s okay to not be okay.”

Social media platforms contribute, with their focus on superficial appearances and making perfectionism seem attainable. The girls say they’re just part of the problem.

“Social media has completely changed the way we think and feel about ourselves” for better and worse, Makena said.

You’ve felt the pressure to be perfect when comparing yourself to other people online. But she also follows social media influencers who are outspoken about their own mental health issues and who make it seem like “it’s okay for me to feel sad and vulnerable,” she said.

Historically, girls have been disproportionately affected by depression and anxiety. But those statistics reflect, at least in part, the fact that girls are often more likely than boys to talk about feelings and emotions, said Dr. Hina Talib, a specialist in adolescent medicine and a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics. .

Zoey, the 15-year-old from Mississippi, says boys have to maintain a “macho facade” and are less likely to admit their heartbreak.

“I feel like they might feel that way, we just don’t see it,” he said.

A study published in March in The Journal of the American Medical Association found that in 2019, before the pandemic, about 60% of children hospitalized for mental health problems were girls. A decade earlier, the difference was only slight.

The COVID-19 lockdowns added another dimension, boosting academic and social life online, Talib said. Some children entered the pandemic when they were young and emerged with more mature bodies, socially awkward, not knowing how to handle friendships and relationships. They live in a world beset by school shootings, a rapidly changing climate, social and political unrest, and restrictions on reproductive care and transgender rights.

The CDC report released in February included teens consulted in the fall of 2021, when COVID-19 cases and deaths in the US were still high. Other data and anecdotal reports suggest that many teens continue to struggle.

“The pandemic as a percentage of their lives is huge,” Talib said.

Expecting children to escape unscathed may be unrealistic.

“It’s going to change a generation,” he said.


Follow AP Medical Writer Lindsey Tanner at @LindseyTanner.


The Associated Press Department of Health and Science receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute Science and Educational Media Group. The AP is solely responsible for all content.


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