August 11, 2020

Social Media may be linked to a Surge in Self-Harm among Teenage Girls.

Editor’s note: Elephant is not your doctor or hospital. Our lawyers would say, “This website is not designed to, and should not be construed to provide medical advice, professional diagnosis, opinion or treatment to you or any other individual, and is not intended as a substitute for medical or professional care and treatment. Always consult a health professional before trying out new home therapies or changing your diet.” But we can’t afford lawyers, and you knew all that. 

A huge thanks to the authors, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, of The Coddling of the American Mind. This short and simple article is written using their hard work and data-driven approach to solving a problem for young people in the U.S. This article is essentially a break down of one section of the book, Chapter Seven: Anxiety & Depression—my journalistic interpretation.  ~ Rajan Shankara, Author


While adults are worried about political unrest in the country—young girls, ages 15 to 19, are committing suicide more than ever before.

Born between 1995 and about 2010, Gen Z or iGen—the Internet Generation as San Diego University psychologist Jean Twenge classifies them—is considered to be the group born after millennials.

iGens are considered the first generation to spend their teen years immersed in social media—a fate that’s a double-edged sword.

The story really begins in 2006 when an entire generation was introduced to Twitter. A period of digital reckoning was upon the iGen world following Twitter’s birth, thanks to the iPhone and Tumblr being introduced in 2007.

Facebook usage spiked for the first time in 2008 due to a deregulation in membership requirements, which led to users no longer needing to prove university enrollment.

Instagram arrived in 2010 and Snapchat in 2011. Data is not yet available on the affects of long-term exposure and addiction to TikTok.

Behavioral psychology indicates that more girls report having depression and anxiety than boys, and women are considered to live longer due to the fact they are more likely to see a doctor for medical needs.

But beginning around 2011, the depression and anxiety gap between girls and boys began to widen—girls reaching an all-time high.

By 2016, roughly 1 out of 5 girls reported symptoms that met the criteria for having experienced a major depressive episode the previous year.

This data set increased for boys, but more slowly.

Another alarming figure is the rate of teen suicide from a data set beginning in 1981—the numbers show an increase in tandem with an increase in depression for girls and boys.

Boys committing suicide, ages 15 to 19, spiked in 1991 but went down in the years following. That rate has slowly risen since, but has not been as high as that peak in 1991—yet is rising nonetheless.

For girls, the rate has been fairly constant since 1981 but it’s now at its highest since the beginning of this dataset.

The findings suggests that, compared to the early 2000s, nearly twice as may teen girls commit suicide.

Self-Harm is Rising

Self-harm or “non-fatal self-inflicted injuries” has another data set for our young Americans. The phrase defines any act related to bodily injury or an attempt at suicide by either making a plan and not carrying it out, to the actual attempt at ending their life.

Emergency room visits include young people who had cut themselves with a razor blade, banged their head against a wall, or who had drank poison.

Data from 66 United States hospitals going back present day to 2001, estimates self-harm rates for the entire country. Here’s what they found:

The rate of self-harm for boys, ages 15 to 19, held steady at roughly 200 per 100,000.

The rate for girls, ages 15-19, is higher and held steady at 420 per 100,000.


Data suggests that two activities are correlated with depression and suicide-related outcomes: watching TV and electronic device use—specifically more than two hours a day.

What’s on those screens?

Social media, among other things.

iGens are bombarded with advertisements for lifestyles that are often different from theirs and may seem more inviting and miraculous than their own. This may not affect young boys as much as it does young girls, but it is affecting both genders enough to bring a steady rise in mental health concerns.

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, authors of The Coddling of the American Mind, believe that not only are iGens at risk for anxiety, depression, and suicide, they also see problematic trends coming out of the universities that have enrolled this generation.

Beginning in 2013, trends of “safetysim” increased—causing those who experience it to view different opinions, ideologies, and even words as violence.

“This is what Greg began to see around 2013: increasing calls from students for administrators and professors to regulate who can say what, who gets to speak on campus, and how students should interact with one another, even in private settings.”

Regardless of your belief on Greg and Jonathan’s university hypothesis, we know that screen-time-indoctrinated teenagers from 2006 to 2011 framed their world-view based on what they were seeing on social media—and it seems to have shaped how they interact with the world…or don’t.

Young people are going out into the world less, and losing the neuro-beneficial aspects of unsupervised play with their peers.

Here’s a few things young people need for healthy functioning:

>> Sports or other forms of exercise.

>> Attending religious services.

>> Reading books or other print media.

>> In-person social interactions.

>> Homework.

Most readers might be surprised to see “attending religious services” on the list, but not me. After spending five years on a religious editorial team, you can be sure we did our research.

Studies show that even a basic level of religious thought, and thinking that there is a higher power, leads to a happier life.

The other aspects of the list are somewhat self-evident, but they are declining in the lives of young people today.

Why are Girls Affected More Than Boys?

Data cited from professor Deborah Tannen on her work with the now famous acronym FOMO, and psychologist Nicki Crick on aggression, suggest that the disparaging gap in mental health from boys to girls is due to the way girls look at reality—with an inclusion/exclusion lens, meaning they view engagement in life as either included or excluded.

From 2010 to 2015, the percentage of boys feeling left out increased from 21 to 27 percent, and the percentage of girls who stated they felt left out jumped 27 percent to 40 percent.

With the rise of social media and Snapchat filters, girls who hold the inclusion/exclusion paradigm are lead to a distortion in cognitive behavioral theory known as catastrophizing.

“Girls may be more ‘relationally’ aggressive, trying to hurt rivals’ relationships, reputations, and social status—by using social media, and making sure other girls know they are being left out.” ~ The Coddling of the American Mind.

In other words, girls may express aggression differently—by psychologically using social media to harm others as opposed to physical rivalry that is common between males.

Unsupervised Play

The rise of social media use has correlated with rising rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide among the younger population in the U.S.

Boys and girls of GenZ grew up with the internet in their pocket and the cognitive development has been both incredible and devastating.

The mind can learn and evolve at a faster rate with increasing levels of technology, but it can be dangerous as well.

Are parents having much-needed conversations with their kids?

As a parent, do you feel like there will be pushback from your attempts at prying into their world? I know it may feel like being nosy: and it may feel like you are pushing their boundaries—but as a parent, that’s okay.

There’s a balance.

We know that some screen time is good—especially if it is centered around knowledge and education—but no more than two hours a day.

A blend of outside social activity for exercise and unsupervised play is good for the body and mind of anyone, especially young teens.

According to “experience-expectant development,” our brain is wired to explore the world and attempt to navigate through human interaction. If that exploration doesn’t manifest, we may be stunting our children instead of preparing them for the road ahead.

Peter Gray, a leading researcher of play, explains our interaction with the  nature of play as children: “They seem to be dosing themselves with moderate degrees of fear, as if deliberately learning how to deal with both the physical and emotional challenges of the moderately dangerous conditions they generate…”

What happens when children don’t get enough of this “fear dosing”?

They lack the proper development of handling stressful situations. Add that to an increase in social media conditioning, and you have a recipe for a coddled individual who can’t express themselves without getting scared, stressed, angry, or violent.

Where Does This Lead?

What do we do?

Usually the answer lies is openness, honesty, and conversations.

We need to feel like we can talk to our kids without adding more secrecy to an already secret subject. We should feel bold enough to make things uncomfortable and risk breaking the thin veil of trust we have with younger people.

Questions to ask the young people in your house: 

>> Do you use social media?

>> How do you use it?

>> Do you use Snapchat?

>> Have you ever felt pressured from using social media?

>> Do you ever feel FOMO?

>> Do you believe the world you see on social media is real? If so, how?

As parents, how do you go into this without losing your teen’s trust? How do you navigate questions around what you know and what you don’t know? No one will be able to answer those questions for you, but you.

However, one thing I can say for sure: this is a conversation worth having whether you get it wrong or not.


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