By the Mental Health Foundation
New Girlguiding UK and Mental Health Foundation research shows pressures of premature sexualization, materialism and boredom are taking a toll on the mental health and emotional wellbeing of girls and young women.
The report, A Generation Under Stress has been published today in partnership with the Mental Health Foundation.
The research was run among girls in guiding between ten and fourteen, through focus groups conducted by Opinion Leader and an online quantitative survey.
Girls of all ages explained that pressure to grow up before they felt ready was among the greatest influences on their mental wellbeing. Feeling compelled to wear clothes that make them look older, sexual advances from boys, and magazines and websites directly targeting young girls with messages they should lose weight, wear make-up and even consider plastic surgery were identified as particularly damaging. Two-fifths admitted to feeling worse about themselves after looking at pictures of models, popstars or actresses.
One participant explained: “When I was eleven I read a teenage magazine for the first time and that is when it kind of clicked, ‘I should be like this.’”
Another said of a young girl shown in the research material: “You can see that the way she is dressing she thinks she’s older than what she is. She’s destroying who she is.”
Many girls had direct experience of friends and people they know suffering mental health problems. Two-fifths know someone who has self-harmed, a third have a friend who has suffered from an eating disorder and almost two in five know someone who has experienced panic attacks. Indeed many girls felt strongly that self-harm was within the spectrum of typical teenage behaviour – provided it only occurred infrequently – and was not necessarily symptomatic of a mental health problem.
As one girl explained: “I think cutting your arm the first time you do it is ok – it might just be stress. When it happens more than two times I think you’re starting to get … mental health issues.”
Another linked self-harm with being part of a particular social group: “One of my best mates, she was an emo, and me and Charlie stopped her because she kept cutting her wrist . . . She was doing it to fit in with the emos.”
Increased pressure to have money for the latest gadgets and clothes and was also identified as putting girls under particular pressure. Polling showed that such commercialism had caused over one-in-five girls to feel anger and sadness and a quarter to feel worried or bad about themselves. Girls felt that this growing check-list of “ideals” for young girls was giving bullies ever-more excuses to single them out – leading to stress, unhappiness and anxiety.
Girls also felt that negative feelings and behaviour that can get you into trouble – particularly aggression, anti-social behaviour and self-harm – were often prompted by boredom and having nothing to do. As one girl admitted: “If I get bored then I start becoming really aggressive.”
Other key influences on girls’ mental health emerged as bullying, family troubles, exam stress and anxiety about not living up to expectations. Three-quarters reported anxiety about testing and school work.
Facing these different pressures, many girls described struggling to manage a complex spectrum of feelings. A sixth of those surveyed often feel angry while half admit they find anger hard to manage. Around a quarter often worry (28%) and feel like no-one understands them (25%) while around half find both emotions hard to handle.
As one girl described: “I can get angry at almost anything. Sometimes I can get sad or low and not really know why.”
When asked what might help girls their age cope with difficult emotions, girls felt that stable and supportive families and friendship groups were vital to becoming resilient to mental health problems. Having someone to talk to who would not judge you – whether that be a mother, teacher, or other supportive adult – was seen to be critically important.
The research also emphasised the importance of having a safe non-pressured environment where girls are kind to each other and have the opportunity to try out new things they might be good at.
Chief Guide Liz Burnley said:
“Young girls today face a new generation of pressures that leave too many suffering stress, anxiety and unhappiness. All of us who care about young women have part to play in helping them find a way through these conflicting demands to build the confidence they need to be themselves. That is why Girlguiding UK continues to provide a safe space for girls – where no-one is trying to sell them anything or pressurize them to be someone they are not – and where they can form the friendships that we know are so important to their happiness.”
Dr Andrew McCulloch, Chief Executive of the Mental Health Foundation continued:
“Girls and young women are being forced to grow up at an unnatural pace in a society that we, as adults, have created and it’s damaging their emotional well being. We have a responsibility to put this right – we must tackle head on the difficulties that the younger generation are facing.”
A Generation Under Stress? is the third report in Girlguiding UK’s new Girls shout out! research series.
For further information, interviews, hard copies of the report, or more details on the recommendations from the youth panel please contact:
- Champollion on 0207 149 3703/4 and 07766 017 985
- Girlguiding UK Press Office on 0207 592 173
- Mental Health Foundation press office on 020 7803 1130/28/26.