As Britney Spears melodiously sang, it’s never been easy to be “not a girl, not yet a woman.” Those lyrics resonate more than ever today as a new survey conducted for Girlguiding lays bare the stark reality: the happiness of seven- to 21-year-olds has plummeted to its lowest level since 2009. The challenges of growing up have always been formidable, but today’s young women face a unique set of hurdles that cast a shadow over their journey to adulthood.
At 32 years old, I find myself profoundly grateful not to be a girl in today’s world, or even significantly younger than my current age. During my teenage years in the mid-2000s, I grappled with the timeless tribulations of adolescence: depression, anxiety, bullying, body image issues, disordered eating, and navigating complex relationships. However, while I acknowledge these struggles, I can’t help but reflect on the constraints that provided a degree of protection against external harm and the impulsive self-destructive tendencies of youth.
One simple example illustrates this point: my access to the internet was limited to the family PC, and it was subject to my parents’ willingness to forgo phone calls while I was online. My “social media” experience consisted of messaging on MSN, exchanging Bebo wall posts with schoolmates, or anonymously participating in public forums centered around shared interests. A significant portion of my youth was spent on the message boards of a guitar tab website. Even my occasional ventures into more risqué online spaces, such as Chatroulette or “shock sites,” appear primitive and mundane by today’s standards.
With a clear demarcation between my online and offline life, home served as a sanctuary from the social dynamics and anxieties of school. However, today’s youth, armed with smartphones, can maintain a secret and uninterrupted online existence, amplifying the bar for self-comparison to unrealistic heights, particularly in terms of beauty standards and body image.
During my formative years, my idols were distant Hollywood celebrities, seemingly inhabiting a realm beyond my reach. In stark contrast, young women today are growing up in a media landscape where even their peers from nearby schools can project an immaculate celebrity veneer on Instagram. Free photo-editing software is readily available and widely used, while the relentless scrutiny—of oneself and others—knows no respite. With so much of their private lives selectively displayed online, the perennial sense of adolescence as a competition—striving to be the most popular, the prettiest, or the thinnest—has intensified.
Moreover, this competition plays out relatively publicly, with adolescent experimentation and lapses in judgment carrying the risk of widespread online documentation. In contrast, my own exploratory phase occurred within a closed network. When, at around 15 years old, I surreptitiously borrowed my parents’ mobile phone to send a “sexy pic” to my then-boyfriend, the picture quality was so poor that it scarcely resembled a human being. Sharing pictures, let alone live streaming, was not yet the norm, and private messaging, group chats, screenshots, and forwarding—the technologies that enable surveillance and “receipts culture”—were in their infancy.
The tightrope that young women must now navigate, as they forge their self-identities and navigate their social worlds, appears increasingly perilous. Simultaneously, the threats from the world at large are more challenging than ever to shut out. While I grew up with only a vague awareness of “global warming” as a troubling concept, the Girlguiding survey underscores that the specter of the climate emergency looms heavily over children who have not even reached puberty.
Among many twentysomethings I converse with, there is a palpable and persistent anxiety that they are not doing enough to address the climate crisis. It’s as if they have internalized the media’s message, popularized by Greta Thunberg and the school strike for the climate movement, that children are not only “our future” but also bear the responsibility for safeguarding it for the rest of us. Coupled with ongoing economic challenges and political disappointments, the period during which children can remain blissfully unaware of adult concerns is rapidly diminishing.
Indeed, what we might categorize as “youth culture” is characterized by a level of literacy and awareness that can inadvertently foster fatalism. Social media has played a pivotal role in disseminating feminist perspectives on sexual politics and rape culture to the mainstream. On TikTok, I often encounter concepts and analyses that I encountered for the first time in a gender studies paper during my second year of university. However, acquiring the vocabulary to make sense of one’s experiences can be a double-edged sword, making individuals acutely aware of their vulnerabilities and disadvantages.
This heightened awareness is glaringly evident in the extensive volume of dating advice for young women on TikTok. Lists of hyper-specific “dating red flags” and guides for identifying love-bombers, narcissists, abusers, and other “toxic” men abound. Combined with the stark statistics on the prevalence of sexual assault, it is no wonder that teenage girls feel that so much is at stake and that emerging unscathed is an elusive prospect.
From a young age, they are burdened with awareness, compounding the anxieties of adolescence. Today’s young women grapple with legitimate concerns, and our culture constantly magnifies these concerns. Even their pop music, traditionally an expression of youthful exuberance, escape, and collective euphoria, has taken on a slower, more melancholic tone, with young stars appearing world-weary beyond their years and openly addressing anguish. Artists like Olivia Rodrigo, at just 20 years old, sing about paralyzing self-comparison and not feeling “pretty enough.” Meanwhile, 21-year-old Billie Eilish’s songs explore themes such as climate anxiety, mortality, and her experiences of sexual abuse within the music industry.
When I engage in conversations with women younger than myself about their fears for the future—concerns related to work, dating, and the pressures of social media—it’s the words of my peer, the 33-year-old Taylor Swift, that come to mind: “Give them back their girlhoods—it was theirs first.”