Survey shows decline in girls’ wellbeing

Feeling the pressure: The new film God Help The Girl, which addresses teenage mental health.

A new survey has shown a sharp rise in the number of young girls facing ‘emotional problems’ such as anxiety and low self-esteem. Are girls under more pressure from society than ever?

Being a teenager has never been easy. But today, in addition to the age-old problems of fitting in and doing well in school, social media could be exacerbating the worries and problems facing young people. In particular, a new survey by University College London and the Anna Freud Centre has found a sharp rise in the number of girls at risk of ‘emotional problems’.

The study compared a sample of 1,683 students in 2009 with the same number in 2014, and revealed that the percentage of girls aged 11-13 who are likely to suffer from ‘emotional problems’ has risen from 13% to 20%. This means that in an average classroom of 30 mixed students, three girls will face issues of anxiety, unhappiness and low self-esteem — all potential warning signs of serious mental health problems.

‘The fact that other mental health issues stayed about the same makes us think that there must have been significant changes over the past five years which have specifically affected young girls,’ said Dr Elian Fink, lead author of the report.

This is just one in a long line of worrying studies which suggest that young girls are suffering more self-esteem issues than boys. Last year, the School’s Health Education Unit found that 53% of girls aged 12-13 and 62% aged 14-15 said they would like to lose weight, as opposed to 32% and 27% of boys the same age. At the same time, 7% more girls aged 12-13 and 17% more girls aged 14-15 worried about problems with schoolwork than boys.

While some have attributed the apparent decline in girls’ emotional wellbeing to the financial crisis and cuts in mental health services, co-author Miranda Wolpert suggested that ‘increasing sexualisation and objectification amplified by social media’ may be to blame. Certainly, it has been well-documented that sites like Facebook and Twitter can cause stress and anxiety for adults as well as teenagers. People are more likely to compare their lives to those of celebrities and friends, to feel isolated from the world, and to have difficulty communicating with others in person.

Run the world?

After fighting for equality for over 100 years, in a lot of ways women can say ‘we have never had it so good’. Anti-discrimination laws and a spotlight on feminism are creating a society which values women equally to men and encourages young girls to succeed. There may be some problems, but a lot of progress has been made.

Yet some argue it is harder than ever to be a young girl in society. Unrealistic and sexualised images of women are everywhere, and online culture encourages people to share only the most exciting and glamorous parts of our lives — a far cry from reality. It’s no wonder that girls are feeling the pressure.

You Decide

  1. Do you think being a teenager is harder or easier in 2015 than it was for your parents?
  2. What are the most urgent things that need to change about gender relations over the next century?


  1. In groups, discuss some of the worries you feel in your everyday life and decide three things which may help to make your lives easier.
  2. Think of a recent film or TV show. Write a short comparison of the way it portrays its male and female characters.

Some People Say...

“To criticise Facebook is to criticise the telephone.”

Jesse Eisenberg

What do you think?

Q & A

What do ‘emotional problems’ really mean?
When taking the online survey, participants were asked how much they agreed with statements like ‘I am often unhappy, down-hearted or tearful’. Having emotional problems could mean feeling sad or upset, but it could also refer to feelings of anxiety or low self-esteem. We all have bad days, but if it seems to be happening frequently, it may be time to seek help.
What should I do if I am worried about my mental health?
First of all, it’s important to remember that you are not alone and that there are lots of resources for young people who are struggling. Talking to a family member or medical professional can be a big step, and there is a lot of useful information online — you can find more links in the ‘Become An Expert’ section of this article.

Word Watch

Anna Freud
The youngest child of Sigmund Freud, the great but controversial psychologist who invented psychoanalysis. Anna Freud followed his teachings but focused especially on children.
Physical symptoms of anxiety such as an increased heart rate, fast breathing and a churning stomach are part of the ‘fight or flight’ response — the body’s way of preparing for an emergency. It’s perfectly normal, and even healthy, to feel anxious in stressful situations such as before an exam. However, those who suffer from anxiety disorders may find that their feelings of worry and fear are impacting their everyday life, and even causing panic attacks.
Cuts in mental health services
In January 2015, it was revealed that spending on children’s mental health in England had fallen by 6% since 2010, the equivalent of around £50m.
A recent study of 700 university students in the US suggested a link between ‘Facebook envy’ and depression. In 2012, a survey by Anxiety UK found that 45% of respondents felt ‘worried or uncomfortable’ when they had no access to emails or Facebook.

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