The Digital Apple: Exposing the Mental Health Crisis of Teenage Girls in Our Brave New World
Beneath the shiny facade of social media lies a disturbing truth: teenage girls are silently battling a mental health crisis. After being shocked by a recent article in The Washington Post, I decided to take a deep dive. The statistics are sobering: Nearly one in three high school girls has considered suicide, a 60% increase in the past decade. Additionally, almost 14% of these girls have experienced forced sexual encounters, and approximately six in ten report persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness, leading them to disengage from regular activities (1). These numbers paint a grim picture of the challenges young girls and teens are facing in our digital age.
Numerous studies have highlighted the strong correlation between excessive social media use and the prevalence of depression among teenage girls. Among various platforms, Instagram has emerged as particularly detrimental to mental health and overall well-being (2). The incessant exposure to meticulously curated and idealized images on social media platforms can exacerbate body dysmorphia and foster an unhealthy self-image (2). As I was finishing this up, Dr. Vikek Murthy, our Surgeon General, just published a 19-page advisory on the alarming effects of social media with a "profound risk of harm" to adolescent mental health and urges parents to set limits and governments to get tougher on standards for use.
Even as an “old lady,” I feel this in all kinds of ways. It’s so easy for me to fall down a digital rabbit hole and find myself ensnared by the never-ending scroll. Mindlessly scroll...scroll...scrolling through image after image of flawlessly retouched models. And then as I peer into my own looking glass mirror at my “11s” suddenly they look that much more exacerbated. Of course, social media is not the sole cause, but it undeniably plays a significant role in the current mental health crisis facing an entire generation.
The Impact of Social Media
Like prying open the lid on Pandora's box, the influence of social media reveals a realm of wonders and perils, enticing us with its allure while concealing its darker depths. As the digital landscape constantly morphs, it unveils new challenges and consequences, leaving us to navigate uncharted territory. Much like the citizens in George Orwell's 1984 who couldn't foresee the extent of their own subjugation under the watchful eye of Big Brother, we find ourselves traversing a digital realm where the consequences of our online interactions and exposure to idealized images are not fully apparent.
If you were forced to read 1984 in your high school English class, you probably recall Winston Smith, the protagonist, struggling to maintain his individuality (and sanity) amidst a society controlled by surveillance and manipulation. I don’t think it’s a too far-fetched notion that teenage girls today are facing the daunting task of preserving their mental well-being and self-perception amidst the seductive allure of the candy-crusted digital world they reside in. It's as if we are all living in a real-life version of 1984, where our perception of reality is distorted by the constant barrage of carefully manipulated images. But it’s 2024. And, hello, here comes AI... It’s all a Pandora’s box of sorts. That we don’t know the full effects of (yet).
The Role of Screen Time
Excessive screen time is having a profound impact on the well-being of young people. Studies have shown that prolonged screen time is associated with higher levels of anxiety and depression among young individuals (3). The constant exposure to online content and the addictive nature of digital devices pose significant risks to the mental well-being of our teens.
Research has also found that increased social media use is linked to poorer sleep quality, which further affects mental health (4). Moreover, excessive screen time in early childhood can impede cognitive development and academic performance (5). Additionally, it can contribute to social isolation, hinder the development of crucial social skills, and negatively impact physical health, increasing the risk of obesity and cardiovascular problems (6). Not to mention how alarming it is to note that 45% of teenagers report being online "almost constantly" (7). I don't want to sound like some freak "alarmist" but the negative effects of screen time on mental health and overall well-being cannot be underestimated (8).
Of course, the digital age has brought about tremendous advancements, opportunities, and connections. I mean to be fair you are reading this right now because you found it (or it found you) on social media. And, yes, I love seeing what everyone in my circles is up to. I love “hearting” the flurry of photos of your most recent celebrations. I love staying “connected” to loved ones across the country and around the globe. And, yes, every Sunday you can catch me preaching online because at the church I serve we recognize the importance of providing both an in-person and an online space for people to gather. But…along with all the “great” things about social media, we have unleashed something dark as well.
And it’s our teenage girls that are falling into the darkest shadows of our brave new digital world. At a minimum, I think it is our responsibility, to be honest about the dark side of social media. It truly is "both/and." And shouldn't we be collectively concerned that an entire generation of Alices is falling down the digital rabbit hole into a "Wonderland" filled with both marvels and unforeseen dangers. Honestly, the current mental health crisis facing teenage girls demands our attention and action. We must take responsibility for the negative impact of excessive social media use and screen time on our young people. And provide them with tools to navigate the looming digital abyss.
Stay tuned for part two–This morphed into something insanely too long for one post. Part Two will look at what we can do to help our young ones navigate Pandora’s Digital Box. It's live! Follow link ----> Empowering Parents: Action Steps to Safeguarding Youth Mental Health in a Digital World
1. The Washington Post - "Teen Girls' Mental Health Crisis"
2 . Time Magazine- Why Instagram Is the Worst Social Media for Mental Health
4 Journal of Youth and Adolescence - "Associations between screen time and sleep duration are primarily driven by portable electronic devices: Evidence from a population-based study."
5. Pediatrics - "Early Childhood Screen Time and Parenting Attitudes and Beliefs"
7 Vogels, E., Gelles-Watnick, R. & Massarat, N., 2022. Teens, Social Media 2022
Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech. United States of America
I also want to note I got some AI help hunting down additional sources. See, it's not a total abyss. It truly is "both/and."