By Deena Wicker, March 7, 2023

Teen girls in the United States experienced record-high levels of violence and depressive symptoms in 2021, according to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey released last month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The study’s press release stated 57% of adolescent girls reported feelings of “sadness and hopelessness,” which is a 60% increase from the 2011 surveillance. They also lead male students by at least 10% in two categories regarding violence and sexual assault. 

“I’m unfortunately not surprised by this, but I think there’s something to be said, something this article doesn’t mention, about how the violence that teen girls are experiencing might be contributing to their overall sadness and mental health,” said Caryn Gerstenberger, an assistant professor of sociology.

While the study indicated an urgency for change, most women would likely agree the findings are predictable. However, considering the increase in conversations around topics like sexual health and wellness over the last decade, according to Gerstenberger, the rise in statistics may be a positive progression. 

“Sometimes when we see increases in violence being reported, it’s actually a good thing. What I mean by that is that people are feeling like they have more of a voice,” she said. “There may be an extent to which teen girls might feel like they can say it because someone might actually believe them.”

The report’s focus areas included sexual behavior, substance abuse, experiencing violence, mental health and suicidality, and new and emerging national data. It also factored in disparities in demographics, such as sex, race and sexual orientation.

Female students demonstrated higher numbers in almost all measures of each focus area, as 30% consumed alcohol in the span of one month, 20% experienced sexual violence within the year, 14% were forced to have sex in their lifetime and 25% made a suicide plan within the year.

Deena Wicker | The Poly Post

According to Gerstenberger, the stigma around vulnerability has softened over time, but the socialization of men and boys stands as a contributing factor to the data’s disproportion through power dynamics and outdated ideas of maturity. The discussion of consent, toxic masculinity and appropriate self-expression may alleviate this issue, but a single solution is unclear through an intersectional lens. 

Additionally, women still bear the weight of expectations imposed on them by patriarchal standards. Girls of the current digital age face additional pressures as media consumption rapidly increases.

“Female beauty means having flawless skin, an hourglass body, impressive makeup skills, a beautifully bare face, being on trend with the latest products and great fashion,” said computer science student Angie Kim. “If they don’t fit those standards, they can feel castrated from society and devalue themselves, which can lead to low self-esteem and depression.” 

Sociology Assistant Professor Sekani Robinson mentioned influencer culture as a pillar of these beauty standards, noting the negative effects produced by the lack of honesty around their lifestyles, physical enhancements and sponsored product advertisements, all encouraged by capitalism.

“I think the bottom line is just educating and being transparent,” said Robinson. “I think that’s what we really need, but it’s hard because we need to ask influencers to do that.” 

Alongside teenage girls, another notable finding surrounded LGBTQ+ youth. Nearly 70% of queer students struggled with depression, 25% attempted suicide over the year, and more than 50% struggled with poor mental health within the month.

According to NPR, 13 states proposed bills to prevent discussions around sexual and gender identity in the classroom. Though the same principle of increased visibility and reporting can be applied to these statistics, one might also consider how homophobia on all levels, including legislative, affects these students and how they are able to receive support and create communities. 

Solutions proposed by the CDC to lower these numbers include: increasing educational and social connections for all youth, increasing access to resources by properly funding schools to connect both youth and families to community care and implementing proper health education for all ages. 

Feature image by Deena Wicker

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