The State of Mental Health in Teen Girls

Teen (16-17) girl lying on bed using smartphone

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Imagine you are a 15-year-old girl. Two years ago, halfway through your freshman year of high school, you sheltered at home to avoid a novel virus, going months without seeing friends and spending hours on Zoom fulfilling your course requirements.

You missed high school milestones like Friday night football games, parties, and dates. Instead, you began relying on social media more than ever, spending hours scrolling, hoping to feel stimulated and inspired. You see plenty of celebrities with poreless skin and other girls your age who you think are cooler than you, causing you to question your identity. Puberty doesn’t help the situation at all.

And then, you’re back at school. Everything has changed—your body, peers, the world at large—and yet it is back to business as usual. It is hard to connect with others after so much time spent connecting through a phone. You lost any sense of routine you once had during the mundane days of online school and can’t seem to adapt to post-pandemic life

The New Normal

This scenario happens to be a common one. A recent study shows rates of depression increased while overall mental well-being dropped amongst teenage girls during the COVID-19 pandemic. Another study found that the first wave of the pandemic led to internalized symptoms of anxiety, depression, and eating disorders. Unfortunately, it isn’t only teenage girls who feel the intensity of this time. A recent journal article found that 37% of parents reported arguments with their children, which escalated more since the start of the pandemic.

These factors can add up to parents feeling frustrated and disconnected from their daughters. While the past few years have been jarring for everyone, and feelings of frustration are valid, one of the best ways to support your daughter is to understand the unique stressors of being a teenage girl during this era.

The Teenage Crisis

While the stark statistics may speak for themselves, it is critical to explore why teen girls are having a hard time. “Teens are more isolated from their peers now, so that can bring on depressive symptoms due to a lack of social engagement,” explained Londyn Miller, LMFT and marriage and family therapy doctoral candidate. Beyond the isolation comes big questions about life and their place in the world. “The pandemic has also made teens reflect on their mortality more, giving them a loss of control and safety, which we know are elements of trauma,” Miller concluded. 

Londyn Miller, LMFT

The pandemic has also made teens reflect on their mortality more, giving them a loss of control and safety, which we know are elements of trauma.

— Londyn Miller, LMFT

Traci Terrill, AMFT echoed this sentiment, adding how online school can contribute to body image issues. “When kids are looking at themselves all day in online school, that increases body dissatisfaction or being preoccupied with the body,” she explained. “I think the pandemic, social media use due to boredom and isolation, wanting to stay connected to people their age, and being at that age where they want to differentiate from their parents… It really was a perfect storm,” Terrill continued. 

The storm has only worsened with the use of social media, with a 2021 study stating that “liking” and commenting on others’ social media posts led to lower appearance self-esteem, specifically in girls.

Terrill, who focuses on supporting those experiencing eating disorders, has seen how poor mental health can be exacerbated by social media usage. “I’ve worked with kids and teenagers as young as eight, and I can’t remember a client who didn’t say they weren’t particularly impacted by TikTok or pro-ana content,” she stated.

Pro-ana content is content that promotes behaviors related to anorexia. Social media algorithms only fuel the fire. Algorithms try to fill our feeds with content we consume, meaning if one pro-ana video is watched, a dozen more will likely l show up in the feed. “It is a way for young girls and teenagers to learn tips and tricks to manage their eating disorder better. It is also the main source of comparison for their bodies,” she continued.

The Battle of Identity

Social media isn’t only perilous when it comes to eating disorder content. Miller explains that social media can serve as a roadblock to teenage girls’ developing their identity due to pressures to uphold a digital persona. “It adds another stressor to the process of identity development amongst adolescent girls,” she shared. “Social media can contribute to the comparison trap among teen girls and expose them to societal standards and expectations via numerous ads and celebrity pages. Most of which are often unrealistic, objectifying, and discourage singlehood,” she continued. 

Traci Terrill, AMFT

I’ve worked with kids and teenagers as young as eight, and I can’t remember a client who didn’t say they weren’t particularly impacted by TikTok or pro-ana content.

— Traci Terrill, AMFT

While the data has told us the state of mental health in teen girls is worrisome, piecing together each of these factors paints a picture of how we got to where we are. While the reality may be devastating, the future can be better. 

Supporting and Helping

When it comes to healing, the old adage of putting our own oxygen mask on first applies here. Modeling mental health and self-care through seeking out your own therapy can help provide the support you may need to show up for your daughter properly. This is especially important if you notice you’re often engaging in moments of tension and conflict with your daughter.

Practicing non-judgment and leading with curiosity is a good place to start when broaching the topic of mental health with her. She is the expert on her lived experience and is living through a critical historical moment. This doesn’t mean that your role as an elder, caretaker, and parent is vetoed. It simply means beginning by talking openly about how she feels. Though it may be scary to hear her voice, her current concerns, and her pain points, it ultimately carves a path toward healing

Terrill suggests also having a conversation about the pros and cons of social media, particularly TikTok. “Explain the algorithm, that if they go down this path of content, they will receive more of that information,” she shares. She also suggests having an open dialogue about what is healthy social media activity, identifying when comparisons are happening, and discussing how she feels when she notices she is comparing herself to others.

Finally, Terrill recommends watching "The Social Dilemma" with them, noting how this film has been a big eye-opener for some of the folks she’s supported because it helped them understand how they were being manipulated. “[Social media] isn’t necessarily fun and silly stuff. It is big corporations looking at you as a piece of data,” she concluded. 

Above all, leading with empathy and compassion while upholding boundaries to keep her safe is of the utmost importance. At the core of the current state of mental health in teen girls is a sense of disconnection. Forging that connection is possible, one step at a time. Our girls depend on it

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Julia Childs Heyl, MSW
Julia Childs Heyl, MSW, is a clinical social worker and writer. As a writer, she focuses on mental health disparities and uses critical race theory as her preferred theoretical framework. In her clinical work, she specializes in treating people of color experiencing anxiety, depression, and trauma through depth therapy and EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) trauma therapy.