Last month’s Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, which found that nearly 1 in 3 teen girls seriously considered suicide in 2021, is the last straw.
It’s the last straw for researchers like me who have been sounding the alarm about teen mental health for years and often found ourselves dismissed. In data I analyzed for my upcoming book, “Generations,” teen depression doubled between 2011 and 2019 even before the start of the pandemic, and emergency room admissions for self-harm quadrupled between 2010 and 2021 among 10- to 14-year-old girls.
But more importantly, it’s the last straw for teen girls and their parents, who have been suffering for years but seeing little change. The CDC report has pushed several points to the forefront that are crucial for families to understand. As the mother of three girls, two of them teenagers, I have a personal interest in this topic as well as a professional one.
First, we need to listen to teen girls, whose concerns are too often pushed aside. It is true that verbal and social bullying, insults, and body image concerns are more common among girls and more common during adolescence. But that does not make them any less real or any less upsetting. It’s tempting to dismiss sadness or tears in a teenage girl as “hormones” or “girl drama,” but these emotions can sometimes lead to more severe issues and this needs to be taken seriously. Even if they are just “normal” teen ups and downs, they still hurt, and still deserve the empathy—not the derision or denial—of adults.
In a Washington Post story on the CDC report, one teen girl specifically said, “I want adults to believe young girls.” Right now, that means acknowledging that teen girls are suffering.
Second, we should acknowledge that social media must have something to do with why so many teen girls are miserable. The growth of social media and other technologies in the 2010s radically changed teens’ lives: They started spending a lot more time online and less time in-person with friends and less time sleeping. Over the years since 2012, social media platforms became more and more engrossing, with girls fighting for likes and followers on Instagram and Snapchat and being drawn into the powerful algorithms of TikTok.
Claims that the links between social media use and depression are “small” fail on multiple points. With heavy users twice as likely to be depressed as light users, it seems odd to describe the links as small. The associations are just as large as factors subject to public health interventions like smoking, obesity, and lead exposure. Although not all teens are negatively affected by social media, some are very negatively impacted.
If 38 percent of girls who ate a new-to-the-market candy got a stomachache, compared to only 11 percent who ate other candy, the new candy would immediately be pulled from the market even though the majority were not adversely affected. Yet those are the exact statistics for social media and depression for girls in one of the best-designed studies, and social media is still available to children and teens with no age verification required.
Contrary to popular belief, teen girls don’t deny that social media plays a role in their misery. In Meta’s internal research on Instagram, leaked in 2021, teens frequently blamed the pressures of social media for their generation’s high rates of depression (“this reaction was unprompted and consistent across all groups,” one internal report noted.) So why don’t girls give up social media? Partially because the sites’ algorithms are designed to keep users on the app for as long as possible, and it’s even harder for teens to stop given their developmental stage. Many teens have also told me they don’t know how. All of their friends use social media so they would feel left out if they didn’t use it, despite the negative content that is harming them.
Finally, given this group-level impact, we need group-level solutions. There is growing bipartisan support for raising the minimum age for social media to 16 (it’s currently 13). That would at least get social media out of middle schools, which is a developmentally difficult time. The age minimum would also need to be enforced, either through users sending a picture of their ID or through verification by a third-party site. We didn’t let the logistics of verifying age stop us from enforcing the age limit for alcohol, cigarettes, or driving, and we shouldn’t let it stop us here.
Until that happens, keeping kids and teens off social media is our job as parents—and it’s not an easy one. Social media platforms don’t require parental permission to open a social media account, and they do not verify age. But here’s what parents can do in the meantime.
Consider putting parental controls on your child’s device, such as Bark or Google Family Link, so they can’t download new apps without your permission, or place strict time limits on their use of social media apps (this may not prevent them from being exposed to harmful content, but it will at least mean they are exposed to less and may spend their limited time on more beneficial activities).
Especially for kids and younger teens, a more straightforward solution is a pared-down phone that doesn’t have internet access or any ability to download social media apps. When my husband and I wanted to get a phone for our now 13-year-old daughter last year, we gave her a Gabb phone, which offers a special discount. She can call and text her friends, take photos, and contact us if her bus is delayed without us worrying she’s found a way onto social media sites without our permission. It also looks very similar to a normal Android phone, so it doesn’t stand out.
Like many parents, I am frustrated that we need to solve this problem one by one when so many families are looking for solutions to the same problem. But until the laws are changed, that’s the situation we’re in if we want to help our teens—and it’s clear that they are crying out for help.
Originally published on the Institute for Family Studies blog.