What’s the Matter With Girls?

by | May 27, 2024 | All, Fatherhood-Motherhood-Children Education, Gender Equality | 0 comments

Kay S. Hymowitz is the William E. Simon Fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor of City Journal. She writes extensively on childhood, family issues, poverty, and cultural change in America.

Unless you’ve been in a state of cryonic suspension, you’ve no doubt heard that America’s adolescent girls are depressed. The internet is chock-a-block with articles with titles like “Teen Girls Are Facing a Mental Health Epidemic,” “Teen Girls Report Record Levels of Sadness,” “American Teen Girls are Not OK,” each one stocked with disquieting stories of self-cutting, Tik Tok-induced Tourette’s syndrome, gender dysphoria, anorexia, and suicidal plans. A slew of studies has appeared highlighting the reality of these headlines. To name just two: a 2021 Youth Risk Behavior Survey reported that 57% of female students were experiencing persistent feeling of sadness or hopelessness, a rise from 36% in 2011.  And last February, the CDC published a survey replicating the YRBS findings. The researchers found that 60% of girls felt sadness every day for at least two weeks during the previous year, twice the rate of boys. Alarmingly, 1 in 3 teen girls had considered taking her own life.

Do we know why girls are so unhappy? There’s plenty of speculation. Maybe it’s meritocratic pressure to make the Ivy League. Or it could be the mess of a world they’re living in, what Gen Z influencer Taylor Lorenz called on Twitter “a late-stage capitalist hellscape” (though you would have to assume this is a fate burdening both boys and girls). Jon Haidt and Jean Twenge have been arguing, cogently in my view, that social media and digital life are damaging adolescent mental health. Girls spend more time on social media: ergo, they’re worse off. But the truth is we don’t know for sure.

The Gender Gap in Adolescent Mental Health: A Cross-national Investigation of 566,829 Adolescents Across 73 Countries” by three UK anthropologists, published in Population Health in 2021, is a useful addition to this discussion. It does not offer a final answer about the cause of girls’ unhappiness, and it’s limited by some feminist assumptions typical of much contemporary social science. But because the topic has become a conspicuous part of the public conversation, and because the paper has several strengths missing in others exploring the same question, it’s worth examining.

The paper’s advantages are three-fold. First, while past cross-national research on adolescent mental health has been limited to highly developed, “WEIRD” countries, this one, as the subtitle indicates, contains multitudes. The more than half a million student subjects come from North and South America; Europe; the Eastern Mediterranean; Southeast Asia; and the Western Pacific. (Africa was not included because it was lacking relevant measures.)

Second, instead of the vague, overly general terms that often confound happiness studies, this research aspires to be more precise, collecting data on different dimensions of well-being, including life satisfaction, psychological distress, hedonia, (happy, lively, cheerful moods) and eudaemonia (the experience of purpose and meaning in life).

And finally, the researchers coded all countries for GDP, income inequality, and gender equality. Put together, these measures can give us insight into which economic and social conditions are conducive to, or at least correlate with, adolescent—and particularly girls’— well-being.

So, what do the authors find? The primary take-away is that girls experience more negative moods than boys, not only in the U.S. and other WEIRD nations; it’s a discrepancy found across the world. In fact, girls are worse off than their brothers on just about every dimension of happiness covered in the study’s data. The gap reflects especially high measures of psychological distress and low levels of life satisfaction among girls.

The second takeaway is a partial confirmation of the famous “Easterlin paradox.” For those unfamiliar with the term, in 1973 the economist Richard Easterlin published a paper showing that there is no clear correlation between rising GDP and higher levels of adult happiness. Other economists have contested his findings, and it’s fair to say that, the measure of happiness used by Easterlin was not especially nuanced. Nevertheless, the UK researchers find that their more sophisticated measures of well-being support Easterlin’s theory. Girls in wealthier European nations consistently have worse average mental health than girls in less advantaged countries. This is true across all mental health outcomes except hedonia. (Could it be girls in wealthy nations have more money for Taylor Swift concerts and ski trips that temporarily raise hedonic temperature but do little for longer-term well-being?) At least one prominent researcher has argued that income inequality has an impact on mental health in the United States. The authors of this study looked into that possibility but didn’t find much support for it. True, inequality is related to distress in both boys and girls but only marginally. In fact, in one of several oddly inexplicable results in this paper, girls actually experience more life satisfaction in countries with higher income inequality.

Whatever its benefits—and there are many—growing up in a society that can only answer the big questions of adult life with “it’s all up to you” can be more troubling than freeing for a 12-year-old. Their choices are many and fluid, and insofar as any norms do exist, they are loose and fungible. What’s a girl to make of her life?

The most provocative finding in “The Gender Gap in Adolescent Health” is that the happiness gender gap in richer, more gender-equal countries is bigger than it is in more unequal, less affluent societies. If these findings are correct, we have to conclude that the Western freedom to pursue self-defined life goals doesn’t make girls any happier than girls whose choices are more limited in work, marriage, and childbearing.  On the contrary, more liberated girls seem worse off. The researchers relied on several measures to determine gender equality including the Global Gender Gap Index (GGGI) of the World Economic Forum. The GGGI has five indicators to give a more granular view of women’s economic freedom: labor force participation, the income gap, the ratio of female professional and technical workers to males, among other gages, while also controlling for a country’s level of development. Using these measures, the authors found that boys are happier than girls in Sweden and Finland, countries widely thought to be among the most enlightened places for women on the planet. By contrast, girls in Jordan, Lebanon, or Saudi Arabia, the latter a country where up until recently women were not even allowed to drive, have the lowest gender gaps in mental health. No one would have predicted it, but if these findings are correct, gender equality makes boys happier than it does girls.

What to make of these counter-intuitive, some might even say bizarre, findings?  To make sense of them, the authors rely in part on a 2009 paper by economists Betsy Stevenson and Justin Wolfers. That study showed a decline in American women’s happiness “both absolutely and relative to that of men” during the 1970’s and 80’s, a period when, by all objective measures, women had made “enormous gains.” Stevenson and Wolfers propose several theories for this apparent disconnect: First, as legal and cultural gender rights advanced, women developed higher expectations, which they were often unable to realize. That subjective feelings of well-being depend in part on expectations seems a reasonable proposition. If girls grow up in a country where there is no such thing as a start-up girlboss or a female astronaut, they are less likely to hope for those outcomes for themselves and so less likely to be unhappy when they don’t happen.

Relatedly, Stevenson and Wolfers theorized that women suffered from new frustrations as they now measured their own achievements against those of men who had a huge head-start in the labor market, rather than against other women, few of whom would have been planning a big career in the 70’s and 80’s. A similar theory is that women were caught between old norms and new professional opportunities. This meant that they were saddled with what the sociologist Arlie Hochschild famously called the “second shift;” they had to write briefs at the office and feed and bathe the children at home. “The Gender Gap in Adolescent Mental Health” researchers argue that a similar set of tensions is at the root of girls’ unhappiness in egalitarian societies. “Adolescence can be particularly stressful when the norms of femininity potentially contradict with the norms of gender equality,” they write, “and attempting to balance the two may be additionally difficult.”

But these are unlikely explanations for the low spirits of 21st century, WEIRD adolescent girls for several reasons. For one thing, mental health has been declining in girls as young as 10; that’s pretty young to be suffering from the burden of “balanc[ing] multiple gender norms.” For another, girls have been out-performing boys in classrooms in much of the developed world for many years; that’s especially the case in higher education. It’s hard to imagine how schoolgirls could be “frustrated achievers” in comparison to their male classmates. Yes, there are still glass-ceilings to break that might limit them when they are older especially if they want to occupy corporate C-suites. However, it’s not plausible that American teen girls are facing a “mental health epidemic” because the country has yet to elect a female president, or that Swedish 14-year-old girls are dissatisfied with their lives because they are less likely to become software developers than are their brothers. If I remember correctly, and unless the species has evolved in miraculous ways, these are not the kinds of problems that tend to pre-occupy teenaged girls.

The proto-feminist presumption behind these explanations is that the first place to look whenever girls are doing worse than boys is sexism. But there are other possible reasons for gender gaps in this case—the sadness of girls. One obvious example that goes unmentioned in “The Gender Gap in Adolescent Mental Health” is that the hormonal changes that accompany puberty are more fraught for girls than they are for boys. This 2021 article in Developmental Psychology tracing personality changes and pubertal levels in a cross section of 2640 teens, shows neuroticism levels climbing steadily for girls from ages 10 to 18 when they finally level off; for boys, on the other hand, neuroticism trends downward during those years and from a lower base. (Note, however, girls score higher than boys on agreeableness.) Adult women, too, score higher in neuroticism and are more prone to depression than men.

I would venture the following explanation for the counter-intuitive findings in “The Gender Gap in Adolescent Mental Health”: Girls in more traditional societies are less depressed than their more modern counterparts precisely because they have limited options. What modern Westerners might see as oppressive gender roles and marriage norms, people in less liberal societies might experience as clarity. An established script where there are fewer choices might well make puberty less of an existential predicament. This is not a defense of a life of barefoot pregnancy, nor is it an argument that women need to give up their fought-for freedom from strict gender roles. But it is an argument for recognizing that whatever its benefits—and there are many—growing up in a society that can only answer the big questions of adult life with “it’s all up to you” can be more troubling than freeing for a 12-year-old. Their choices are many and fluid, and insofar as any norms do exist, they are loose and fungible. What’s a girl to make of her life?

If so many young girls are now turning to Tik Tok and Instagram to answer that question, we should be alarmed, but we shouldn’t be surprised.


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