“What do you like to do for fun?”
I often pose this question to the over-scheduled and stressed out teenage girls who come into my office. Some give me a look as if to say the last time they did something seemingly fun and frivolous was a spontaneous trip to the ice skating rink years ago. Others spend their little free time hanging out with friends, and acknowledge how teen girl friendships can vacillate between being incredibly supportive and being remarkably stress-inducing – sometimes simply depending on the week, day, or even minute.
In the April 2013 edition of Town and Country Magazine, Girls star Allison Williams admits, “I put so much pressure on myself to be perfect. Between homework and sports and drama and being social, I slept about four hours a night through high school and college.” Even today, she readily accepts that she is still her “own worst critic.” Her revealing insight exposes what so many teenage girls experience yet few openly discuss – so many run so far, so fast, for so long that they begin to feel as though they are running on fumes.
Facebook COO and bestselling author Sheryl Sandberg famously notes how women will never close the achievement gap until “we close the ambition gap.” She encourages young women not to slow down but instead, to lean forward and “keep the pedal to the metal.” While the conversation on women and work has certainly gained an enormous amount of conversation and controversy, we often overlook how this entire lean in/lean back/fall flat debate impacts the generation of talented teenage girls who currently feel as though they are running themselves ragged.
The problem is not that young women lack ambition, determination, or drive. Instead, it is as though some of them are leaning in so far they might fall over. With single digit acceptance rates at some of the most competitive colleges and seemingly scarce entry job opportunities in a tough economy, it can become easy for today’s teen girls to slip into a cycle of perfectionist achievement based on a combination of fear and self-doubt. Somewhere along the way, the message that “You Can Do It All” has somehow been translated by many teenage girls to mean that they need to maintain a standard of “effortless perfection,” according to a report released by the Duke Women’s Initiative.
The over-stimulation of messaging and cluttered news feed from technology and social media sites is an often-overlooked contributor to this trend. A report from the Kaiser Family Foundation reveals that teens between the ages of eight and 18 spend 7:38 hours using some form of media per day (nearly 53 hours per week) and teen girls send an average of 4,000 text messages per month, according to the latest Nielsen data. It can be exhausting to think of all the different platforms girls typically use to communicate, interact, and socialize – they can read and share postings on Facebook or Tumblr, scroll through photos and comments on Instagram, watch an inordinate amount of videos on YouTube, and, most recently, send photos and messages through Snapchat.
Girls are relational, and are more likely to use social media to socialize (boys tend to be more likely to use data for gaming). In the online world, someone is always doing more than you, in a better way, and looks better while doing it. Social media can create a hyper-intensity of anxiety and expectations, as girls can often end up comparing their reality to someone else’s highlight reel of accomplishments. A 2011 report from the American Academy of Pediatrics classified a new form of depression as “Facebook depression,” which it defined as “depression that develops when preteens and teens spend a great deal of time on social media sites, such as Facebook, and then begin to exhibit classic symptoms of depression.” The time spent on social media can contribute to feelings of never feeling good enough, as well as an endless cycle of feeding off external validation rather than allowing time for internal reflection and personal growth and development. The teen tech addiction also contributes to the vicious cycle of trying to constantly do more and be better and bigger than ever before, without stopping to reflect on internal values, personal purpose and overall wellness.
Unfortunately, the effects of taking on the journey of life with the intensity of a sprinter can be utterly draining. As these teenagers move into young adulthood, these enthusiastically ambitious girls may barely have enough energy to broker a seat at any table, much less take on the challenges related to juggling work and life commitments.
If we really want to promote sustainable ambition for our next generation of women leaders, we need to shift the conversation and include the importance of overall wellness. For instance, although the National Sleep Foundation suggests adolescents get between eight-and-a-half and nine-and-a-quarter hours of sleep per night, more than 70% of teen girls admit to getting less than eight hours of sleep a night. The effects of sleep deprivation on emotional, mental, and physical wellness are well documented, and many girls fail to make time to adequately rest, reflect and recharge. Sleep hygiene is a term used by doctors to communicate how they must now teach people to get more sleep, and I would argue that social media hygiene – that is, learning how to have cleaner, less overwhelming social media experiences, is also crucial for overall wellness.
Teenage girls have double the rates of depression and anxiety as their male counterparts, and are twice as likely to be bullied online as boys. Many college student affairs officers at top-ranked colleges are seeing more and more college women are struggling with increasingly complex mental health issues. The meanness that is prevalent in teen girl culture often stems from an internal sense of emptiness, and its effects are pervasive. A 2011 CDC survey of ninth through twelfth graders revealed that a third of girls admitted feeling so sad or hopeless for two or more weeks that they stopped doing some of their normal activities. Nearly one-fifth of teenage girls admitted to seriously considering committing suicide.
Parents, educators, and girls themselves need to collaborate in order to create a healthier culture. Online socialization is an integral part of these young women’s overall life experience, and we need to actively address how to find positive ways of interacting and interfacing with technology to create healthier overall experiences. Spending a little more time at the skating rink and a little less time online could be an important first step. Because once this generation of teen girls is able to actively overcome the external expectations and internal pressures for unobtainable perfection, we can finally work to close any remaining gaps, ambition or otherwise.
A version of this was originally published on the Broad Side.