Exam Stress And Social Media Means Girls Are Less Happy Than 10 Years Ago

Loulla-Mae Eleftheriou-Smith

Young women and girls are less happy than they were 10 years ago, but more are willing to seek help for and discuss mental issues that affect them, new research has found.

The number who would term themselves “very happy” has nearly halved in the course of a decade, from 41% in 2009 to 25% today.T

The Girl’s Attitudes Survey carried out by Girlguiding UK found exams are still the main cause of stress in girls aged 11-21, but new stresses have arisen over the decade.

Pressure from social media has grown in the past seven years and almost 60% of those surveyed said it is one of the main causes of stress among girls their age.  

Nearly half said that feeling unhappy affects their health, while it also negatively impacted other areas of their life such as their confidence, having fun with friends, their relationships with friends and family, learning and being able to do things they enjoy such as sports and hobbies.

For young women aged between 13 and 21, more than half have experienced street harassment and 63% feel unsafe walking home alone, while increasing numbers have experienced negative behaviour online.  

But more girls than ever feel able to talk about mental health today. In the older bracket of 11 - 21-year-olds, 71% said they know a girl who has had a mental health problem, an increase of nearly 10% from three years ago, while the survey recorded a steady increase in girls’ awareness of peers who have experienced depression or an anxiety disorder.

The amount of girls in this age group who felt mental health issues were awkward to talk about has dropped from 57% in 2015 to 46% today, and half said the subject had been spoken about at school during lessons.

Despite the issues affecting girls’ and young women’s happiness, the research also found that they are speaking up about issues and subjects they feel passionately about more than before, with 36% of 11 - 21-year-olds having done this in 2018, compared with 28% in 2011.

One issue girls are increasingly speaking up about is period poverty. More than two thirds of girls over the age of 11 believe menstrual products should be made free by the Government to young people who can’t afford them.

Another positive development in recent years is that the subjects younger girls are interested in at school and beyond have diversified, with their enjoyment of information and communication technology having doubled over the decade. A total of 43% of girls aged 7-10 now enjoy ICT, compared to just 19% in 2009, and more girls are interested in STEM subjects - science, technology, engineering and maths - overall.

An increasing number of girls want to be taught about politics, citizenship and voting, but said that the way that female politicians are depicted in the media, the reported levels of sexual harassment these politicians experience, and the elitist, male culture of politics, puts them off wanting to follow a career in the industry.

Speaking to HuffPost UK, Victoria Kinkaid, British Youth Council Delegate for Girlguiding, said: “From this survey the key statistic is that girls are unhappier. It’s due to exams, which is such a shame because school and education is the one thing that really empowers girls to be able to go out and do what they want to do.

“We know that when girls are less happy they feel less confident and able to go out and have fun with their friends.”

Kinkaid said that because social media wasn’t a factor in girls’ happiness seven years ago, but is now the second biggest cause of stress among older girls, “we can assume that it’s going to be a growing pressure, and potentially in the next few years a leading cause of stress”.

“It’s really important that we teach girls how to responsibly use social media, and that everything they see on there isn’t always real,” she said.

Kinkaid is a mentor for action for change at Girlguiding, and said problems arising from social media and body confidence is definitely an issue she has seen first hand when working with the girls. But she added that the increase in girls and young women voicing their views and concerns is a positive turn of events: “It’s good to see that girls are speaking out about how they feel and hopefully this percentage will go up in the next few years,” she said.

She added Girlguiding as a whole is calling for girls to be listened to more by Governments and schools, but added that the organisation itself can be a safe space for girls and young women who are going though the same stresses, and “is a really powerful way for them to find solidarity and know they’re not alone”.

The findings are from the Girl’s Attitudes Survey carried out by Girlguiding, which saw 1,903 girls aged between seven and 21 asked what they think and feel about a range of subjects, from education to personal safety.

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