Why are teen girls becoming more depressed?

Pew Research Center focus groups with adolescents ages 12 to 18 revealed that many teens feel overwhelmed by the pressure to present a perfect image on social media.[i] This pressure seems to be especially difficult for girls, who are more likely than boys to suffer from major episodes of depression, according to a study published in the journal Pediatrics.[ii] The Johns Hopkins University researchers analyzed self-report interviews with more than 172,000 adolescents in the US from 2005 to 2014, finding that more teens were depressed and three-fourths of them were girls (an increase in depressive symptoms from 13% to 17%, compared to boy’s increase from 4.5% to 6%). The authors cite other studies finding a greater increase in depressive symptoms in girls than boys and point to girls’ greater use of texting that makes them vulnerable to cyberbullying, and increases in girls’ self-injury. The researchers reported that about one in 11 teens suffer from a major depressive disorder each year. Although suicide is the second leading cause of death for adolescents, only 10% of the depressed teens saw a medical professional. For young adults, 18 to 25, the increase in symptoms was less than 1%, to around 10% (females 12%, males 7%). The fact that the increase occurred more in teens than young adults suggests that economic stress isn’t the main cause, but rather the increase in peer pressure from social media is problematic, to which girls are more vulnerable.

Boys have higher rates of depression until mid-puberty when girls are more depressed, a trend that continues through adulthood.[iii] This trend is not based on biology because the pattern doesn’t hold in traditional societies and ones where the traditional female role is highly valued such as Amish, Orthodox Jews, or in some Mediterranean countries, but has to do with gender roles that socialize girls to be affiliational and boys to be achievers. Many boys (including other primate youngsters) grow up playfully insulting and fighting with each other, which makes them less sensitive to criticism. Females are more likely to report symptoms of depression and anxiety and to seek help, partly due to role socialization that boys are supposed to be independent problem-solvers rather than sissies. Hence boys may turn to sports, drugs and alcohol rather to mask their pain rather than admitting weakness to a person.

Other explanations for more likelihood of depression for girls are: they are more likely to be sexually abused, they are expected to be well-behaved in a narrow range—there’s no parallel belief to “boys will be boys,” and have a more external locus of control rather than internal one because they are more protected and controlled. “Tomboy” girls may be tolerated but I don’t hear the use of this term anymore. By age six, girls are less likely than boys to view their gender as “really, really smart,” while boys were less likely to say their gender gets top grades in school—girls do tend to get better grades.[iv] Boys are taught to have more self-esteem, called on more by teachers, and allowed to monologue in class. A 20-year study found that boys in elementary and middle school received eight times more teacher attention than girls, discussed in the AAUM Report How Schools Shortchange Girls (2013).[v] A British educator, Mary Bousted, reported it’s “dangerous for girls to be assertive, speak confidently, take up class talk time or defend their opinions” because they can become targets of abuse from classmates.[vi] Feeling helpless is linked to anxiety and depression. As teens, girls are more judged on how they look than boys, are more likely to suffer from cyberbullying, and to care about the reaction to their posts on social media sites like Instagram. This may be due to their socialization to be attractive and judged by what boys like them. Assertive girl “brains” may not get asked out on dates as some boys want to feel superior, due to their socialization to compete and win. It looks like girls still need assertiveness training and be taught to have an internal locus of control rather than being so reactive to their peers’ judgments.

[i] Patti Neighmond, “Depression Strikes Today’s Teen Girls Especially Hard,” NPR, February 13, 2017.


[ii] Ramin Mojtabai, Mark Olson, Beth Han, “National Trends in the Prevalence and Treatment of Depression in Adolescents and Young Adults,” Pediatrics, November 2016.


[iii] Marco Piccinelli and Greg Wilkinson, “Gender Differences in Depression,” British Journal of Psychiatry, Dec 2000, 177 (6) 486-492; DOI: 10.1192/bjp.177.6.486


[iv] David Miller, “Stereotypes Can Hold Boys Back in School, Too,” The Conversation, February 1, 2017.


[v] http://www.aauw.org/files/2013/02/how-schools-shortchange-girls-executive-summary.pdf

David Sortino, “When Boys Get More Classroom Attention than Girls,” Press Democrat, December 13, 2012.


[vi] Graeme Paton, “Teachers ‘Should Stop Rowdy Boys Dominating Lessons,’” The Telegraph, September 13, 2013.


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