(CN) — A staggering CDC report showing extremely high rates of depression and suicidal thinking among teenage girls has left experts — and parents — scrambling to solve the mystery of what’s causing it.
Some 57% of teen girls in the U.S. felt “persistently sad or hopeless” in 2021, a nearly 60% increase in the last decade. Even worse, 30% said they seriously considered suicide over the previous 12 months, 24% made a plan for suicide and 13% attempted it.
The latest version of the study, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention runs every two years, includes responses from more than 17,000 students. It shows depression rates are twice as high among girls as among boys.
The attempted-suicide figures have to be considered with context, cautioned Victor Schwartz, who teaches at the CUNY School of Medicine and spent eight years as the medical director of the Jed Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to preventing teen suicide.
“For teenagers, the ratio of self-reported suicide attempts to actual suicides is about 10,000 to 1, and for younger teens it’s 50,000 to 1,” Schwartz said. “Many teenagers will say they tried to kill themselves when they had a fight with their parents and hit themselves in the head or took four Tylenol or cut themselves superficially.”
But even if only a small number of teen girls are actually killing themselves, the number who are depressed and who say they’re thinking seriously about suicide is nothing less than shocking.
The findings come at a time when young women would seem to have greater opportunities in life than ever. Women outnumber men 57% to 43% at four-year colleges, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, the exact opposite of the ratio in 1970. And today’s teenage girls can’t remember a time when a glass ceiling prevented women from being taken seriously as presidential contenders.
What’s more, many factors that are frequently associated with teen depression don’t seem to be playing a role. Bullying — both online and in person — has declined for teen girls in the past decade, the CDC study shows. Alcohol consumption among teen girls has dramatically declined as well, and girls are using fewer drugs and having less sex with fewer partners.
One logical suspect is the pandemic, with its lockdowns and school closures. But the latest study was conducted in 2021 when the pandemic was waning, and it’s unclear why school closures would drive suicidal thoughts for girls more than for boys — or more than adults who lost loved ones or livelihoods to the virus.
The trend toward depression has been accelerating steadily since 2011, and “there’s not much evidence of a Covid effect,” Jonathan Haidt, a professor at NYU’s business school, wrote in a detailed analysis of the data.
Another logical suspect is social media, given that teens spend an average of 87 minutes a day on social media sites, according to a survey by the nonprofit research organization Common Sense Media.
Long before the pandemic there was a massive shift from in-person to online friendships. Even before the pandemic hit, according to a study at the University of Rochester in New York, the average amount of time that people ages 15-24 spent in person with friends declined from more than two hours a day in 2013 to less than an hour.
Many people have been skeptical that social media can cause depression ever since an influential 2019 study by Oxford University researchers found a very tenuous relationship between exposure to digital media and teen mental health. But that study looked at all digital media (including Netflix) and didn’t separate subjects by gender, Haidt noted.
A 2022 analysis by the Pew Research Center found that teen girls are far more likely than boys to spend time on social media sites such as Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok, while boys favor Twitch, Reddit and YouTube.