And in spite of that, girls are increasingly outcompeting boys and turning into future leaders.
Amid the avalanche of reports deploring troubled teens and blaming their youthful peers and social media, two new trends are emerging that are both disturbing and encouraging. And teenage girls are the focus of these trends.
On one hand, girls of the 2020s are depicted as miserably depressed, imperiled, and suicidal. But they are also seen as dynamic achievers, increasingly outcompeting men and boys in education, jobs, and activist leadership, all to the consternation of traditionalists. Which is it?
Bad news first—and it is bad.
American girls are being abused and murdered at appalling rates. From 2010 through the most recent 2023 Centers for Disease Control (CDC) tabulations, 6,600 American girls under age 18 were murdered. The murder rate of American girls averages 10 times higher than in the other Western countries.
Yet facing the truth about who is violently victimizing girls has long proven inconvenient for American leaders, institutions, professionals, and media. Instead, for more than a century, all have maligned each new generation of girls as the most mentally disturbed ever.
Recently, a new fear has emerged. Modern girls’ arrival in and increasing dominance of many traditionally male domains is frightfully damaging to female mental health and physical safety, declares a barrage of popular commentators led by Mary Pipher, Courtney Martin, Jean Kilbourne, Jean Twenge, Jonathan Haidt, Caitlin Flanagan, Gigi Durham, Deborah Prothrow-Stith, James Garbarino, and Rosalind Wiseman, joining what used to be a crusade by conservatives. These authors depict teen peers as dangerous, and most argue for restricting girls, or even (like Pipher and Flanagan) for returning “fragile” girls to supervised and “protected” home life.
Today’s authorities, from the Surgeon General to psychologists, lawmakers, and media commentators, stampede to blame violence against girls on peers, mainly school shooters and “teen dating violence” exacerbated by “kids” finding unsecured guns and “cyberbullying.” The consensus dominating discussion is not just wrong; it’s absurd.
Who’s Murdering and Abusing Girls?
The gyrations the establishment herd indulges in to avoid the real answer is bitterly ironic, given the dangers their own demands to redomesticate girls present. Homes, and the grownups in them, not the outside/online worlds and peers, are what most endanger girls, authorities’ own statistics and surveys show.
FBI tabulations show just 7% of murdered girls under age 18 were killed by youthful peers. In contrast, nearly 60%—eight times more—were murdered by grownups ages 25 and older, including 56% of the 2,500 girls murdered by guns. Eight times more children and youth are murdered by guns at home, overwhelmingly by adult shooters, than at school—the single biggest reason guns are the leading instrument of death for young Americans. Three in four murderers of girls are adult men.
The United States Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration on Children and Families reports that in 2021 alone, 600 girls were murdered and tens of thousands were victimized in substantiated violent, sexual, and psychological abuses at home, overwhelmingly by grownups. The CDC’s 2021 Adolescent Behaviors and Experiences survey, a massive, 116-question survey of 8,000 teenagers—the most comprehensive, authoritative documentation of teen issues available—details how damaging these abuses are.
One in seven 12- to 18-year-old girls reports violent abuse (beatings, kickings, and other injurious assaults) and 62% report emotional abuse (being sworn at, name-called, etc.) inflicted by parents or other household grownups, compared to one in 11 and 48%, respectively, for boys. Those findings represent 400% to 600% increases, from a similar 2011 survey, of abuses that go far beyond normal family disagreements. Girls are three times more likely to be violently abused by household adults than at school or by dating partners, and four times more likely to be psychologically bullied by grownups at home than at school or online.
Standard regression analysis assessing key factors that potentially affect mental health (which authorities either didn’t do or won’t publicize) shows that in every case, parents’ increasing violent and emotional abuses stand out as more damaging than every other factor—including social media—by wide margins. Compared to the fraction of girls who report no abuses by household grownups, the most frequently abused girls were 2.5 times more likely to report getting five or fewer hours of sleep per night (a strong correlate of depression), 2.5 times more likely to report sadness, 3.1 times more likely to report frequent mental health problems, 6.6 times more likely to binge drink, and 17 times more likely to report suicide attempts.
Girls who are frequently abused by household adults are also four times more likely to suffer bullying at school and five times more likely to suffer bullying online, compared to girls who are not abused at home. That may be why the survey shows abused girls are 30% likely to spend more than five hours a day online, including seeking mental health and medical help. The weak correlation between social media use and depression that is frequently touted by authorities is a reverse one: Depression drives more online time, not the other way around.
These realities should be igniting loud alarms among mental health and institutional authorities who are well aware of decades of compelling research exhaustively tying household abuse to adolescents’ poor mental health and tragic outcomes. The pivotal CDC survey, when fully analyzed, shows the dangers of authorities’ refusal to confront household abuses, while rushing to ban or restrict teenagers from social media pathways by which teens make connections and find help. Schools, in particular, should drop their grandstanding lawsuit against social media and, instead, switch to later hours to allow teenagers more time to sleep.
What Does “Depression” Mean?
But there’s a silver lining to all this. Girls are responding normally to the crises of addiction, depression, abuse, violent mortality, and official indifference afflicting America’s increasingly troubled grownups, who lack the will to respond with normal urgency to clear threats. What authorities term a “mental health crisis” is not whiny, self-absorbed adolescents moping over some TikTok or Smartphone snark.
Instead, supposedly depressed, suicidal Generation Z girls and women are sharply reducing their dropout and early parenthood rates, and attending college, earning degrees, dominating career fields, and becoming global leaders for activist causes in increasing numbers. Achievement and activism are not behaviors traditionally associated with depression. And scientists only recently have begun to explore this apparent contradiction.
Columbia University researchers find “depression” has risen the most among liberal and politically aware teens, especially girls. However, that clinical term appears to confuse feeling overwhelmed by one’s own problems with feeling challenged by the problems of the world. Today’s youth are “more attuned to political events than prior generations,” developing “political beliefs” that “encapsulate many aspects of lived experiences and social identity” that, in turn, affect “mental health trends.” A 2022 Pew Research Center study found four times more liberal than conservative youth use social media for activist causes, part of complex networks of youths’ online connections.
Meanwhile, American grownups are suffering severe difficulties adapting to jolting modern changes, racial and cultural diversity, and new technologies. Adult depression tripled amid rising opiate addiction and the stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic. Suicides, homicides, and accidental drug and gun fatalities have skyrocketed over the last two decades among teenagers’ parents’ generation.
Grownups who lost jobs are twice as likely to abuse teens, the CDC survey shows. These vital adult contexts for teens’ behaviors are yet another reality authorities ignore. Instead, American leaders and institutions have veered into destructive teen-bashing and culture-war crusading at a time when intergenerational alliance and greater social connections are crucial to confronting unprecedented challenges.
This is true at the local level and worldwide. Many teenagers are right to feel depressed about conditions in their homes and communities and are right to be disgruntled with the inexcusable failures of authorities to address looming global crises. Supportive adults should not see these youthful attitudes as pathologies to be deplored and treated. They are grounds for hope.
Mike Males is a senior researcher for the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, the principal investigator for YouthFacts, and the author of five books on American youth.