Do girls really have more anxiety than boys?
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America interestingly reports that girls are twice as likely as boys to cope with an anxiety disorder. This trend starts early on, from the moment a girl hits puberty until she’s about 50 years old. But… why? Why do girls deal with mental health issues more than boys?
According to psychologist Dr. Leonard Sax, who wrote an entire piece on the topic for the New York Times, several factors could be at play here. Mainly, it may all revolve around body image. “Some research has shown that in adolescence, girls tend to become more dissatisfied with their bodies, whereas boys tend to become more satisfied with their bodies,” writes Dr. Sax, adding that social media is perhaps another culprit: “A girl is much more likely than a boy to post a photo of herself wearing a swimsuit, while the boy is more likely to post a photo where the emphasis is on something he has done rather than on how he looks.“ This makes girls’ photos more personal, since they’re tied to how they physically view themselves.
“The thing about selfies is that it’s a way to control your image. Being able to do that, you can put out into the world what you like. The issue for girls is that it’s an undeniable fact that women are judged based on their external image much more so than men. So, in a lot of ways, posting selfies is a way to control that and put into the world what they want someone else to see,” licensed marriage and family therapist Susan Pizzi tells HelloGiggles. “The issue is that, to maintain that control and portray that image of oneself, it’s not authentic and causes a dissonance within whomever is posting that.”
Pizzi adds that teenagers especially will struggle when they post images not true to who they are. Since teens are in the process of trying to find themselves and maintain their self-esteem, posting a picture of a false self can greatly slow down this process. Pizzi states, “The other thing is that teenagers’ brains aren’t developed until they’re 26, so that impulsivity, that executive functioning, that part of your brain that says, ‘Hmm… Maybe this isn’t such a good idea,’ isn’t in full swing yet, so teens will be much more impulsive when they put something out into the world. It’s a very anxiety-provoking place to exist.”
When it comes to girls specifically coping with this type of anxiety, Pizzi explains, “Girls are sort of in a lose/lose position because if they do [post seemingly risqué or provocative selfies], they are labelled as – for lack of a better word – ‘slutty’ or ‘fast.’ And if they don’t post those types of things, they may be considered prudish …Where a boy may put something up of them doing something or out playing football or something outside himself, a girl will post something of herself, of her being, of her body because women are looked at and viewed by their image, first and foremost.”
Dr. Sax reaffirms Pizzi’s statement, further revealing that boys are often in a better position than girls in the realm of social media. “Boys are at lower risk for the toxic effects of social media than girls are, for at least three reasons,” writes Dr. Sax. “First, boys are less likely to be heavily invested in what you think of their selfies. ‘Does this swimsuit make me look fat?’ is a question asked by girls more often than by boys. Second, boys tend to overestimate how interesting their own life is. Third, the average boy is likely to spend more time playing video games than Photoshopping his selfie for Instagram.” Unlike social media, all players can ultimately be winners in a video game. The virtual world isn’t as forgiving.
So, what can we do about it? How can we make the girls of the world less anxious?
Dr. Sax advises that young women spend less time isolated in their bedroom, staring at their phones. Yes, this is easier said than done, but it’s not something that can’t be achieved. Rather than spending hours on your phone, you can set yourself a time limit. Give yourself 30 minutes on social media and then force yourself to put the phone down and take a walk; spend time with your family, friends, or pets; or do something that relaxes you (yoga, coloring, watching TV, etc.). The American Academy of Pediatrics actually recommends that you keep all screens out of your bedroom.
Parents can also promote positive family discussions at the dinner table, which has been proven to counteract anxiety in kids. Dr. Sax advises parents to stop talking about stressful subjects – bad grades, bad behavior, etc. – at the table and instead work to promote a comfortable, happy environment.
If none of these changes make a difference, it is important that one’s mental state is taken care of by a professional. To find support, you can visit Psychology Today. Under the Find a Therapist tab at the top, you can search for a therapist, psychiatrist, therapy group, or treatment facility in your area.