Why Are Teenage Girls So Unhappy?

'Reviving Ophelia' in a social media world.

Posted Jun 14, 2019

Boiko Olha/Shutterstock
Source: Boiko Olha/Shutterstock

When Mary Pipher’s groundbreaking book about the lives of young adolescent girls, Reviving Ophelia, was written a quarter of a century ago, she found them to be in conflict with their parents, confused, and engaged in risky behavior, which she attributed to the violent, misogynistic culture of the era. In a new look at teenage girls today, she sees them in much less conflict with their families, engaged in less risky behavior, and clinging to the safety of home.

For their parents, that sounds like a good thing. But in fact, the amount of time they spend creating an Instagram or Facebook-ready false self—a virtual persona—stunts their performance of the life task essential to this stage of life, which is creating an identity. Says Pipher, “Screenagers don’t interact with the real world enough to build a solid, functional self.”

In focus groups and one-on-one interviews, Pipher and her daughter were struck by the difference between girls’ online personae—bright and friendly—and their real selves, who were often fearful, vulnerable, and “unimaginably lonely.”

“Oh, that’s what our parents used to say about TV—it was rotting our brains,” says one mother who scoffed at Pipher’s findings. But, in fact, living in the digital world leaves girls self-absorbed and ill-prepared and avoidant when it comes to face-to-face interaction with their peers; they worry about being rejected if they suggest meeting “in real life” and are unsure how to behave if their invitations are accepted.

Today’s Ophelias, says Pipher, lack a functional self—unsurprising when their closest relationship is with their device. “Time spent online affects every aspect of adolescent development—physical, emotional, cognitive, sexual, and relational.” She admits what every parent knows: that smartphones are addictive, social media is a source of anxiety, fear of missing out is a consuming worry, and peer pressure to put your life online is considerable—even when you have to create one that bears only a scant resemblance to a more accurate rendition.

If disconnection from all that truly matters is the reason for girls’ despair, counsels Pipher, healing involves connecting to the authentic—learning how to be alone and how to be together. She advises parents to host family get-togethers, encourage their daughters toward part-time jobs and other activities that put them in contact with real people rather than their online avatars. “Protect them from the most harmful aspects of our culture and connect them to the most inspiring and beautiful elements,” she urges “Any time we behave like healthy families did before 2007 [when social media took over the internet], we are on the right track.”


Mary Pipher, Salon, 6/4/19