A new study on youth wellness out of the UK is making headlines for its finding that reported rates of self-esteem, resilience, emotional wellbeing and “satisfaction with one’s community” plummet around the age of 11, and continue dipping until the age of 16 — and that this drop is far more severe for girls than it is for boys. Furthermore, researchers blame “the march of technology as one of several factors making teenagers unhappy, including obvious factors like hormones and changing friendship groups.” The Daily Mail is one of several news outlets who have seized on the “technology” angle and thus managed to stuff about twenty hot topics into its excessively long headline:”Children become less happy after age 11 amid rise of cyberbulling [sic], online porn and sexting- and it affects girls worse than boys.” But this phenomenon is hardly new or limited to the Internet Age. Far from it, actually. In America and in the UK, young girls have always struggled in pre-adolescence and have always born the brunt of adolescent horror; it’s just that the methods of said horror have changed. Before there was cyberbullying, there was plain old fashioned bullying, after all. Scapegoating technology may make the problem feel more manageable, but it also obscures how technology actually offers more hope for transformation than it does cause for concern.
But before we get into the older research and why we shouldn’t scapegoat technology, let’s look at the new stuff: this three-year study of 7,000 children was the combined effort of around 50 youth charities represented by charity sector think tank New Philanthrophy Capital. The Emerging Scholars Intervention Programme, “a three year Saturday school programme for bright, disadvantaged, 12 to 15 year old girls,” was one of the involved charities, and their programme leader Simon Davey said of the study:
“Technology and the pace of change have accelerated pressures, made them more extreme and increased competition. Girls in particular are more vulnerable to social pressures affecting their confidence and capability.”
Davey told The Daily Mail that their findings “reflect recent concerns about the insidiousness of sexism to which girls are now subject: the profusion of sexualised imagery in everyday life; readier access to pornography; and again, new technology, and specifically the ease with which images and videos can be shared among peers.” Although this study is specific to British teenagers, the issue of the internet and technology’s impact on adolescence specifically is perhaps one of a few areas where it is safe to discuss American and British research in the same breath.
The potential ramifications of easy “image-sharing among peers” is a problem, to be sure, and a big one. But as Alex Morris wrote in a New York Magazine article about the impact of online pornography, sexting and easy image-sharing on teenage girls, “Kids have always been both kind and brutal to one another about sex. They’ve always fretted about, and wanted to show off, their bodies. Nor is sexual precocity, and the dangers that can accompany it, a product of universal Wi-Fi. Kids came out in 1995. As for Skins, most of the kids I spoke to hadn’t bothered to watch it.” (One imagines Morris would’ve found different results for the latter had she been talking to kids in the UK.) Similarly, when I was growing up, hand-wringing was occurring over the rise of VHS, Polaroid cameras and mail-order catalogs which enabled amateur pornographers to cut theaters and photo developers out of their production and distribution process.
In 1991, the American Association of University Women released its report Shortchanging Girls, Shortchanging America, the most extensive survey on gender and self-esteem ever conducted. Over three thousand girls and boys between the ages of 9 and 15 were polled on questions which addressed self-esteem, educational experiences, interest in math and science, and career aspirations. Their findings were alarming, as discussed in the Peggy Orenstein book Schoolgirls: Young Women, Self-Esteem and The Confidence Gap:
For a girl, the passage into adolescence is not just marked by menarche or a few new curves. It is marked by a loss of confidence in herself and her abilities, especially in math and science. It is marked by a scathingly critical attitude toward her body and a blossoming sense of personal inadequacy.
In spite of the changes in women’s roles in society, in spite of the changes in their own mothers’ lives, many of today’s girls fall into traditional patterns of low self-image, self-doubt, and self-censorship of their creative and intellectual potential. Although all children experience confusion and a faltering sense of self at adolescence, girls’ self-regard drops further than boys and never catches up.
The AAUW study found teenage girls emerge from adolescence with less confidence in their abilities and more vulnerability to suicidal thoughts, depression and hopelessness. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist (or even a social scientist) to tell you that girls’ happiness drops off circa puberty — British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips has written that “Puberty is everyone’s first experience of a sentient madness,” but the AAUW study made it clear that puberty itself was only one piece of the puzzle.
This research wasn’t driven underground or only accessible in Ms. magazine, either. In 1994, Psychologist Mary Pipher’s book Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls began its three-year-run on The New York Times bestseller list, promising concerned parents a “call to arms” that would give them “compassion, strength and strategies with which to revive these Ophelias’ lost sense of self” by addressing the following:
Why are more American adolescent girls prey to depression, eating disorders, addictions, and suicide attempts than ever before?… We live in a look-obsessed, media-saturated, “girl-poisoning” culture. Despite the advantages of feminism, escalating levels of sexism and violence — from undervalued intelligence to sexual harassment in elementary school — cause girls to stifle their creative spirit and natural impulses, which, ultimately, destroys their self-esteem. Yet girls often blame themselves or their families for this “problem with no name” instead of looking at the world around them.
Reviving Ophelia notes in its introduction that childhood can be chock full of positive role models, citing fictional heroines like Anne of Green Gables, Heidi, Pippi Longstocking and Caddie Woodlawn (but let the record show that all these girls are white) who show that girls can “bake pies, solve mysteries and go on quests” and “be androgynous, having the ability to act adaptively in any situation regardless of gender role constraints.” This changes dramatically in early adolescence, when girls “lose their resiliency and optimism and become less curious and inclined to take risks,” discarding “tomboyish” personalities in favor of becoming “deferential, self-critical and depressed.” But as the title of Reviving Ophelia — a reference to Hamlet’s suicidal girlfriend circa 1602 — suggests, this is hardly a new phenomenon. It is as old as girlhood itself. It’s also true that the hormonal changes happening to boys and girls in pre-adolescence are so profoundly uncomfortable and confusing that often the best we can hope for with kids that age is to enable them to live through it, precise levels of happiness aside. What’s alarming about these studies, however, is that boys usually are better at “bouncing back” after high school than women are. What happens during those years makes a permanent impact, as I’m sure many women (including me) can attest.
When you look at the AAUW study, the enormous success of Reviving Ophelia and this week’s New Philanthropy Captiol study together, it’s easy to see that all this data is valuable not because it reflects a cultural transformation but because it does no such thing. In the three or so decades where studying the self-esteem of young women has even been considered worthwhile, we’ve seen minimal change in those numbers. Undoubtedly, there are myriad factors in modern life that contribute to this latest incarnation of low self-esteem, including easy access to pornography, excessive texting, anonymous cyber-bullying and reality television, but for every misogynist situation our culture manages to sideline or eradicate, a new one will appear. This will always be true.
When we focus on these manifestations of a patriarchal culture rather than on fixing the culture itself, which should be everybody’s long-term goal, change might seem more manageable: internet censorship, for example, tends to be a popular proposed solution. It’s also a weird form of victim-blaming — if only teenage girls would put down their cell phones, they’d be so much happier! But I would argue that the focus on technology as a contributor to this phenomenon is, at best, missing the point, and, at worst, aggressively counterproductive.
Although I can’t imagine how social media would’ve exacerbated the intense misery and depression I felt between the ages of 11-13 — a period of time when I cried myself to sleep most nights for reasons I couldn’t articulate (and it wasn’t because of puberty, as that came a bit later for me) — I also can’t imagine how some of my anxieties could’ve been alleviated by the increased opportunities for connection and understanding enabled by technology. The internet has increased accessibility to pornography, but it’s also increased accessibility to accurate sex ed. Thanks to tumblr, I’ve seen more body-positive imagery of women who are fat, of color, masculine-of-center or transgender in the last five years than I did in the previous 27 combined. Queer, transgender and disabled adolescent females now have access to a community online that could be nonexistent in their day-to-day lives. The internet provides a disheartening opportunity for vicious anonymous conversations, but it also creates a safe space for kids to have conversations with peers or even anonymous strangers that they’re too embarrassed or uncomfortable to have in real life.
Most important of all, although the internet gives girls access to a psychologically damaging culture, it also gives girls immediate access to feminist and womanist critiques of said culture, something most girls had to leave the house to access even 10 or 15 years ago. “Consciousness-raising” was one of second wave feminism’s easiest and most effective strategies — most patriarchal oppressions were simple for women to understand and oppose, all they needed was the information with which to do so. My adolescent world was rocked by the books I picked up at the library as a teenager, books like Schoolgirls and The Teenage Survival Guide. Bitch Magazine, which served as my entire introduction to a feminist critique of pop culture, is now not only accessible to girls with the resources and means to find a newsstand willing to peddle a feminist magazine called “Bitch,” but also to any girl with the resources and means to find the internet — a much larger group, to be sure. It’s also easier than ever to access the still-thriving ‘zine culture, which continues offering empowerment to diverse audiences in print, and to find other great print magazines still being made for women. We had Seventeen Magazine back then and now we still have Seventeen, but we also have Rookie and Everyone is Gay. I must have been 18 or 19 by the time I saw Jeanne Kilbourne’s Killing Us Softly in a classroom. Today, I’m only a few clicks away from that and films like Missrepresentation. It’s unsurprising, then, that more female voters than ever before identify as feminists, including the overwhelming majority of female voters of color.
Maybe if we go back far enough, to a pre-television pre-mass-media era, we could find a period of time in which girls’ self-esteem did not dip dramatically at the age of 12. But we’d really only be able to say that about white middle-class girls, as the situation for every other group of girls was so blatantly depressing and self-defeating that parsing out the most influential factors on happiness would be a Sisyphean task. We would also be erasing the fact that what is now considered “bullying,” “discrimination” and “low self-esteem” was then considered “conversation,” “law enforcement” and “knowing your place.” Messages women absorbed on a daily basis about their worth and status were brutal and horrifying — even moreso for women of color, queer women, and any woman who didn’t conform to traditional beauty or gender-conforming standards — but these messages were socially acceptable and therefore deemed inherently unproblematic.
In other words: nobody gave a shit if women were unhappy and hated themselves until about fifty years ago, at which point psychologists and sociologists quickly determined that women were unhappy and hated themselves. There was never a self-esteem peak for young women from which we’ve gradually fallen thanks to technology — women requested access into a patriarchal culture, the patriarchy wasn’t into it, and here we are living in that reality, where we most likely will remain for quite some time. Consumerism and capitalism preys on women’s insecurities and thrives on our continued oppression. Luckily, thanks to this study and those that came before it, we have the numbers to prove it.
This survey was conducted by a group dedicated to making charities as effective as possible, and that’s a good thing, because a good offense is important, too — to strengthen programs like the aforementioned Emerging Scholars, and programs in the states like Black Girls Code and Rock Camp For Girls. We also need to continue to invest in independent media that consistently bites back against the unchangingly maddening and misogynist mainstream.
Ultimately, when we’re seeing a certain social phenomenon remain relatively consistent over time, it makes a lot more sense to look at what else hasn’t changed for that group over a period of time (e.g., the gender pay gap, rape culture, media misrepresentation), rather than what’s different (Snapchat). No one study can provide a definitive picture, but I don’t think anybody here has trouble believing that a lot of 13-year-old girls are unhappy now and that the same was true in 1991. Viscous stuff will always happen on the micro level at that age, within an adolescent social universe impervious to the world at large, and people of all ages are harmed by too much reliance on technology. But we can still strive to make a better world for girls and women, and to offer as much hope for momentary transcendence as possible. As the legendary family therapist Virginia Satir wrote in 1967, “Adolescents are not monsters. They are just people trying to learn how to make it among the adults in the world, who are probably not so sure themselves.”