A terrible paradox of the modern West is that while our societies are safer, healthier and richer than any in human history, this material comfort does not seem to be making us happy. Analysis of the recent millennium cohort study, led by researchers at University College London (UCL), provoked some apocalyptic headlines, with the shocking finding that roughly 7 per cent of UK children have attempted suicide by the age of 17.
These bleak findings are confirmed by Samaritans, which provides a graph that shows a very clear and alarming trend: while less than 1 per cent of the over-75s have self-harmed at some point in their lives, around 12 per cent of millennials report having done so, along with more than a quarter of Gen Z girls. The suicide rate for young women in Britain is now at its highest on record.
Here is another paradox. The data consistently reveals that, while women are more likely to attempt suicide, men are more likely to die by it. This is because most suicide attempts fail, the failure rate varies according to method, and men are more likely to choose violent methods, while women are more likely to take overdoses. Like so many other sociological phenomena, suicide and self-harm are gendered in important ways.
There are a lot of factors at play in the worsening of young people’s mental health, not least the ongoing effects of austerity on NHS services. But these cuts cannot fully explain what we’re seeing in the data, given that this trend is not confined to the UK.
One particular line in the UCL report jumps out. During a time period that has included lockdown, the researchers found that psychological distress increased “for females but not for males, though the extent to which this is attributable to the pandemic cannot be known”.
The American psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Jean Twenge offer a possible explanation for this skew, given that we know that young people have been spending more time online during lockdown. Haidt and Twenge have been collecting and categorising the available evidence on the effects of internet use on young people, and have found a consistent association between heavy use and poor mental health. Importantly, the effect is much worse for girls. Astonishingly, Haidt and Twenge have discovered that heavy use of social media, for adolescent girls, is correlated more strongly with anxiety and depression than is the use of heroin.
This gendered effect seems to be a consequence of the different ways that boys and girls use the internet. While both sexes are liable to be sucked into the destructive wormhole of compulsive use, boys are more likely to succumb to gaming and porn addictions, whereas girls both use social media more often, and are more likely to emotionally invest in it. This may well be the crucial factor in their rising misery.
Social media is the perfect arena for the kind of non-physical aggression that is often marked among teenage girls (think of high-school films like Mean Girls, which portray this kind of toxicity with charming accuracy). Bullying, gossip, cliquiness and jockeying for status are all exaggerated online, where popularity is quantified moment-to-moment through likes and follows.
This is also an environment in which carefully posed (and often edited) selfies are a crucial form of currency. And while in the past girls might have compared themselves only with their local peer group – likely to be as normally pudgy and spotty as themselves – they are now launched into a much larger, virtual pool of rivals, which includes some of the most beautiful women in the world. Until quite recently, a teenage girl would never have been exposed to Instagram-perfect glutes and abs, photoshopped and enhanced by cosmetic surgery. Now, she can spend endless hours alone in her bedroom scrolling through photos of female bodies that she considers to be more desirable than hers.
Biologists use the term “female intrasexual competition” to describe the form of sexual selection – not unique to our species – in which females fight with one another for access to mates. While men may “lock horns” with one another quite openly, women tend to be subtler in their strategies, more often using covert self-promotion and forms of relational aggression such as social exclusion. The rise of social media – particularly image-based platforms such as Instagram – has escalated this age-old conflict and, for a teenage girl already anxious about her social status, it is difficult to imagine a more efficient way of inducing distress than giving her a smartphone.
The creators of these devices and platforms realise there’s a problem. Mark Zuckerberg is among those who have admitted that they limit their children’s access to screens, and there has reportedly been a rise in nanny contracts requiring not only that the children of Silicon Valley executives be kept away from screens, but also that their carers abstain from using their own phones while at work.
As is increasingly typical in the world of tech, Bill Gates didn’t allow his children access to mobile phones until they were 14, and then continued to strictly limit their use, for instance banning phones at the dinner table. In contrast, most UK children own a mobile phone by the age of seven, 90 per cent have one by the time they enter secondary school, and a majority report that they sleep with their phone by their bed.
What does Gates know that other parents don’t? One former employee at Facebook, Athena Chavarria, puts the consensus position in particularly stark terms: “I am convinced the devil lives in our phones and is wreaking havoc on our children.”
This article appears in the 03 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Humanity vs the virus