How online connection is affecting teenage girls’ mental health

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Teenage girls today are facing an uphill battle like no previous generation.

As a father of four daughters, I’m naturally interested in the unique challenges they face simply because they are girls. And the more I learn about what it means to be a girl today, the more I’m convinced that making it successfully to adulthood for them is a monumental achievement. Bear with me here as I connect some research dots that show how today’s media environment may be influencing the mental health of our daughters.

Let’s start with mental health. Teenage girls are far more vulnerable to anxiety and depression than boys. Some estimates say that 14-20 percent of girls suffer from a diagnosable mood disorder, more than twice the rate of boys. According to this research, these differences may be a natural result of the differences in brain development between boys and girls. Nature.

But what about nurture? Is there something that girls are doing that boys aren’t that could be related to higher rates of depression? Yes. In fact, it may have much to do with social media. For example, girls use social media significantly more than boys. They also use social media differently than boys—girls are more likely than boys to unfriend, unfollow, or block former friends on social media. In other words, girls connect socially with others differently online than boys do.

The social connection humans feel with others is a necessary component of our well-being. Maslow considers it a basic human need. The more we feel like we have meaningful relationships with others, the better our well-being. And research shows that those who use the Internet at levels of addiction also report far lower levels of social connection.

This leads to the next dot we’ll connect. The skills that milennials use to cope with stress are ineffective at alleviating the stress they feel, leading to, you guessed it, “the manifestation of mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression.”

And one last dot to connect. The amount of time girls spend with technology is related to feelings of sadness and depression, to wanting to change their appearance, and to not participating in extracurricular activities such as sports. They also trust others less and have fewer friends and adults to talk with about serious issues.

Let’s now put this all together. Girls use technology, especially social media, more than boys. Using technology at high levels leads to deficits in social connection. Replacing real-life social connection with online social connection leads to the inability to manage stress. And the inability to manage stress leads to anxiety and depression.

So, now what? I will never understand what it feels like to grow up as a girl in today’s world. I will never fully understand the pressure girls feel to meet societal expectations on them. But this I do know. For those of us involved in the raising, training, worrying, and nurturing of this generation of girls, we have to do something. We can’t sit around and let society raise our daughters. Somehow, we have to figure out how to connect with them in ways that make them feel safe and valued. I don’t know how we’ll get there, but a good starting point might be to go home and use the oldest form of communication available to us—our voice—and tell them we love them. To tell ‘dad’ jokes. To ask them about their day. To build them up in a way that society can’t.

It’s an uphill battle for sure, but I have hope that it’s one we can help them win. Our daughters are depending on us.

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