It's too easy to lay all the blame on social media
In a new report this week, the CDC found that nearly one in three American high school girls considered suicide in 2021. That’s a 60% increase in the last 10 years. With more teenage girls using mental health services and taking medication than ever before, something is clearly going very wrong.
Many blame social media. Psychologists such as Jean Twenge and Jonathan Haidt, not incorrectly, point to rising screen times, social comparison, and too many hours spent on apps which focus on physical appearance. They take aim at the likes of Instagram and TikTok, and demand stricter regulation, whilst recognising that other factors should be considered.
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Social media has certainly played a part in fuelling this crisis. Platforms like Instagram and Meta collect and store personal data, using it to create customised algorithms, or even selling it to advertisers who then target users through personalised ads. For users who are already vulnerable — like teenage girls facing all the psychological pressures attached to coming-of-age — this can be disastrous for mental health.
Online, teen girls often end up being inundated with an infinite stream of face-morphing filters, FaceTuned images, TikToks, Reels, Stories, ads and sponsorships — all the time telling them how to be prettier and more desirable. No doubt that has an impact. In fact, in 2021 internal research leaked to the Wall Street Journal revealed that Instagram makes body image issues worse for one in three girls.
But the roots of this crisis run far deeper than Instagram. Today, a vast, interconnected network of industries — from social media to wellness to entertainment to cosmetics to pharmaceuticals — exploits and profits from girls’ pain and unique vulnerabilities. For those feeling lonely, there are unlimited swipes on dating service Bumble BFF for £7.99 a week; for the insecure, there is ‘baby botox’ starting from £275; for the anxious, 10% off the first month of online therapy with the promo code ‘SLAY!’
This leaves us with an entire ecosystem feeding off various female pathologies. Through this network, industries not only prey on the normal insecurities of girlhood but manufacture new fears, too. Namely, exploiting girls’ natural longing for connection, belonging and validation to sell superficial, short-term substitutes in return, from gimmicky wellness products to baby botox to mental health medications.
Girls today shouldn’t feel anxious about what’s wrong with them. They should be angry that their teenage struggles are being tapped into, their pain exacerbated, and their mental health issues made marketable. It should be no surprise that Gen Z girls’ crisis is getting worse. Tragically, their despair and disempowerment is a billion-dollar industry that doesn’t look like bursting any time soon.