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Our teenage girls aren’t bouncing back

The teenage years are tough. Hormones, exams, social pressures, and fights with family and friends are enough to give most adolescents some angst. But our new research suggests that a significant minority of teenage girls are being ‘left behind’ rather than bouncing back after friendships go sour.

NPC analysis of data collected by over 100 schools and charities shows that the well-being of both boys and girls drops off as they get older, with girls experiencing a much steeper fall. By the time girls are aged 15–17, a significant minority who fall out with friends (more than 1 in 10) also suffer very low well-being overall. Not only are these girls less satisfied with their lives than their contemporaries who have better relationships with friends, they are also less satisfied than younger girls who also struggle with friendships.

Such findings chime with other research on the effects of broken friendships and social exclusion on teenage girls. The Children’s Society found that girls are 40 per cent more likely than boys to have been ‘left out’ by their classmates. This really matters: children who have been frequently bullied are six times more likely to have low well-being than children who haven’t been bullied.

Teenage girls’ well-being is often misunderstood by the adults in their lives. In the latest Girls’ Attitudes survey carried out by Girl Guiding, teenage girls rated mental health issues and cyberbullying as their top concerns—but they thought that their parents are most concerned about drug use, alcohol use and smoking. Meanwhile, teachers often feel helpless when dealing with increasing mental health issues among students.

So what can charities and philanthropists do to support teenage girls in crisis?

In a time of scarce resources and widespread cuts to adolescent mental health services, it is more important than ever to share information and work closely together. Charities can measure changes in well-being by using tools like NPC’s Well-Being Measure, allowing them to develop interventions with a greater impact on the lives of young people. Philanthropists can provide vital support to the many small voluntary organisations that act as an early warning system for spotting teenagers in trouble.

But there are difficult choices ahead. Are limited charity resources better spent on helping teenagers across the board, or concentrating on groups deemed most at risk? Should charities intervene early on with younger teenagers, or focus on older girls already in distress?

And what about the role for charities in supporting broader social and cultural changes to tackle the crisis in teenage well-being? It is striking that the Children’s Society’s research surveyed 15 countries and found that children in England experienced the highest levels of emotional bullying of all countries, leading many to question what this says about our national culture. Some blame social media and its impact on body image; others cite social inequality or the intense exam pressures faced by English teenagers.

Whatever the cause, this is a trend that we should all be worried about. Charities and philanthropists must grapple with difficult decisions about how to allocate limited resources to prevent mental health crises and support the most vulnerable teenage girls. But there are questions for all of us about what kind of world we create for our young people to grow up in.

A version of this blog was first published by Spears Magazine as part of our philanthropy series.