Girls suffer ‘sharp drop’ in mental wellbeing during adolescence, study into Generation Z finds

Samuel Osborne
·3 min read
The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated mental health problems, study finds (Getty Images)
The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated mental health problems, study finds (Getty Images)

The mental health and wellbeing of girls falls dramatically during adolescence, research has found.

A study into the wellbeing of girls and boys from Generation Z, defined as those born between the mid-late 90s and early 2010s, found they had similar levels of self-esteem and wellbeing at the end of primary school, but girls experienced a sudden decline in both by age 14.

Girls’ wellbeing then falls even lower towards the end of their teenage years, while depressive symptoms were found to increase significantly, with as many as one in three girls saying they are unhappy with their appearance by age 14.

The coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated mental health problems, with the number of young people with a probably mental illness rising from one in nine to one in six, according to the study, which was published by the Education Policy Institute (EPI) and youth charity The Prince’s Trust.

Several factors were linked to poor mental and emotional health, including poverty, heavy social media use, bullying and a lack of physical exercise.

“This research shows that the mental health of young people in Generation Z deteriorates markedly as they enter their teenage years, with girls in particular seeing a big drop in their personal wellbeing and self-esteem from around the age of 14," said Whitney Crenna-Jennings, the author of the report and senior researcher at the EPI.

“Poverty, heavy use of social media and lack of physical exercise are just some of the factors that we find are directly linked to poor mental health outcomes.

“Young people already face significant challenges at this stage in their lives, but this generation have also had to deal with a pandemic that will have starved them of the vital relationships and experiences needed to support their journey through adolescence."

The study, which examined the personal experiences of young people in England at the ages of 11, 14 and 17 based on data from the Millennium Cohort Study, found a significant gender divide, with girls reporting far lower levels of wellbeing and self-esteem than boys, along with more depressive symptoms such as feeling worthless or hopeless.

Heavy social media use was found to have an adverse effect on the wellbeing of both boys and girls, as well as the self-esteem of girls.

Also, being bullied in childhood was found to negatively affect both boys’ and girls’ mental and emotional health well into their teenage years.

However, frequent physical exercise was found to play a positive role in young people’s wellbeing – though the study warned that participation in activities and sports had fallen considerably due to school closures during lockdown.

In light of its findings, the EPI recommended the government introduce a £650m funding package to support children and young people’s wellbeing, to allow schools to hire additional staff to deliver mental health support and run interventions to address socio-economic school gaps, as well as build on existing mental health content in the curriculum and improve young people’s access to areas for physical activity.

Ms Crenna-Jenning said: “The government has provided extra academic support for pupils but there is now a compelling case for it to consider emergency funding to support young people’s mental health and wellbeing.

"If we fail to counter the ill-effects of this crisis on young people’s health and development, there is a real risk that it inflicts irreversible damage on their later life chances.”

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