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Teen girls are indeed ‘on the edge,’ but disagree on the whys

By Jayne O’Donnell, Sreehitha Gandluri, Sophie Beney, Hermes Falcon and Michelle Mairena

Youthcast Media Group®

Family physician and psychologist Leonard Sax writes scary books. That’s at least true if you’re the parent of a teenager, as his books — Boys Adrift, Girls on the Edge, The Collapse of Parenting and Why Gender Matters — chronicle the worsening of, well, almost everything for that generation.

I’m glad I only recently read Girls on the Edge, his 2010 book that was dramatically updated in 2020. My daughter turned 22 this year.

When my daughter was a teen, my work as USA TODAY’s health policy reporter covering drug and alcohol abuse, mental health disorders and suicide, made me obsess as much about her psyche and social media as I did college admissions. While covering auto and product safety years earlier, I laid awake worrying her crib would collapse while she was sleeping or the child seat would fail as I was driving.

So, yes, experts can be an anxiety-inducing bunch. After nearly 20 years writing books targeting parents, Sax is no exception and may well be worse now that he's a parent of a 16-year-old girl. Like a journalist, his real-world examples tend toward the extreme, but like it or not, the data on the growing mental health challenges for young women bear out his warnings.

And he does provide what most parents should find helpful advice. The most compelling: That parents should nurture multiple interests in their daughters, encouraging them to, say, play more than one sport - for their bodies and minds - and not be narrowly focused on certain colleges or other achievements that may be unattainable, unfulfilling or both.

But what do young people think of his findings? To find out, Youthcast Media Group (YMG) asked a diverse group of four young women - aged 16 to 22 - and one trans male, 19, to read some or all of the latest edition of Girls on the Edge.

Kymani Hughes, a young Black woman who’s a freshman at Syracuse University, identified strongly with themes throughout the book, penning a powerful separate essay. She applauded the insight Sax provided to help young women “learn to regain their sense of self when they are on the brink of losing it.” And, below, a recent college graduate, two college sophomores and a high school student both confirm and challenge Sax’s conclusions and recommendations on the four areas he places blame for teen girls’ biggest challenges: Social media, environmental toxins, obsessions and sexual identity.

In an interview, Sax said that he wanted to include a chapter on gender identity, but his publisher rejected the idea. (“Non-celebrity authors don’t get to choose the content,” he said.) He points readers to the second edition of Why Gender Matters, out in 2017. As for suggestions below about his negative take on social media, he notes the evidence has only gotten stronger about the detrimental mental health effects of social media on teens, but notes he only recommends parent-set limits, not teen bans.

– Jayne O’Donnell

O’Donnell is USA TODAY’s former health policy reporter and founder and CEO of Youthcast Media Group

By Sreehitha Gandluri

Perhaps the most striking — and unfortunately, seemingly common — element of Dr. Sax’s writing was how incredibly relatable it was for me and many girls my age.

The candid accounts of conversations with real young women only made the work more provocative and interesting. Regardless of how different their stories were, Sax showed how common these feelings were.

Headshot of Sreehitha "Sarah" Gandluri (Courtesy of Gandluri).

“For some of these girls, each accomplishment is just a stepping stone to the next goal,” he said. “The treadmill never shuts off. The performance never ends.”

These girls spoke the words that my own heart echoes everyday.

I related most strongly to Sax’s interview with Emily. Sax describes a conversation with her: “‘So tell me, what do you do for fun?’

‘I don’t have time for fun,’ she said. ‘Between volunteering at the soup kitchen and taking four AP courses and writing for the newspaper and doing most of the layout and formatting for the yearbook, I’m lucky if I have time to sleep at night.’”

Sax stressed how harmful the pressure to be “amazing” can be to the emotional development of young girls. Both Sax and the researchers he quotes in the book explore how this crippling demand from girls led to mental health issues and a terribly lacking sense of self, often followed by self harm and substance abuse.

Students who perceive their classroom environments to be very competitive have 37% higher odds of screening positive for depression and 69% higher odds of screening positive for anxiety, according to a 2016 study in the Journal of College Student Development.

Sax cites journalist Sara Rimer’s 2007 New York Times story on overachieving girls: “There is something about the lives these girls lead — their jam-packed schedules, the amped-up multitasking, the focus on a narrow group of the nation’s most selective colleges — that speaks of a profound anxiety.”

For some girls who were interviewed for the book, more stress was piled on by parental expectations and the belief that their achievements and performance impacted their relationships. Pediatrician Meg Meeker said, “You don’t want to trap your daughter into assuming that her inherent value relies on her performing well at a skill or competition. Kids hate feeling that their parents only give them attention when they succeed at school or extracurricular activities.”

This intense realization struck me to the core. It spoke to my own experience and how many other girls feel the exact same overwhelming pressure to be incredible.

It makes me think about my own life and the never-ending vortex of schoolwork, athletics, and extracurriculars that I have been sucked into, and the sense of self that I have built around this identity of a “perfect girl.”

Sax’s book forced me to reconsider how I viewed my own identity as a person — not as an athlete, student, or writer, but as a teenage girl just trying to find her place in the world.

Gandluri, a high school senior from Clarksburg, Maryland, is a regular YMG participant and contributor who was recently published in Black News and Views.

By Michelle Mairena

When I moved to the United States from Nicaragua at 12 years old, one of the things I heard often from adults — teachers, family friends, parents — was how much smaller I was than my U.S.-born female friends. They were right. Most of my girl friends had reached puberty much earlier than I did. Compared to the average girl at my middle school, I looked like a fifth grader.

Headshot of Michelle Mairena (Courtesy of Mairena).

Unlike my female friends, I was not yet seen as a sexual object.

In the chapter on environmental toxins, Dr. Sax looks into how early puberty affects girls and attributes this growing U.S. phenomenon to girls’ environment. He claims that certain toxins found in foods and absent biological fathers cause early puberty. This is worrisome, Sax points out, because girls who experience early puberty are more likely to have image issues, be catcalled, and be othered by classmates.

I found myself re-reading this section of Sax’s book, both for Sax’s informative claims and the questions that are left unanswered in his suggestions directed to parents. On the topic of toxins, Sax cites studies that say canned and plastic-contained foods have endocrine-disrupting chemicals that can mimic female hormones. I felt 12 years old again, hearing the joking question of whether I was eating the same foods as my classmates.

Sax tells parents to stay away from certain foods, but I would have liked to hear more on how parents from different demographics can help their children stay safe. I thought of government-provided school lunches that might contain these toxins and the millions of children who rely on this free food. I also thought of how research shows we all accidentally consume tens of thousands of microplastics daily because of increased pollution.

The section on biological fathers, which solely addresses traditional heterosexual two parent families, also left me with questions regarding non-heteronormative households. I would have been interested in the inclusion of studies that touch on LGBTQ+ families and early puberty, as well as Sax’s recommendations for LGBTQ+ parents. It feels to me that, if we can’t create inclusive solutions, there might be little some parents can truly do to shape their girls’ environment. I am left wondering if the imperative, beyond Sax’s suggestions to micro-manage what girls eat and are surrounded by, lies in changing a national culture that hypersexualizes girls and values capitalism over children’s health.

Mairena, a junior at Stanford University from Miami, was a Youthcast Media Group summer intern and is one of the co-founders of Rhizome, a nonprofit that trains young people to be more civically involved.

By Sophie Beney

I felt that Dr. Sax highlighted only the troublesome aspects of social media and failed to mention any single positive impact social media has had on my generation those younger than us.

Headshot of Sophie Beney (Courtesy of Beney).

As a 22-year-old woman, who was a teenager during the peak of social media, I felt misrepresented. Throughout my teen years, social media was used as an agent of political and social change, and it still serves this purpose.

When I was 13 in 2013, the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter was first used, bringing widespread attention and awareness to racial injustice - through social media. This movement inspired me and many others in my generation nationally, and even internationally, to use social media as an agent for change in order to stand up, virtually, for what they believe in.

While Sax, importantly, lists the benefits of keeping your child off of social media, he fails to mention that anything used to an extreme can be dangerous.

A 2020 study by Harvard University researchers published in the journal Health Education and Behavior found that routine use of social media had positive health effects on a sample of 1,000 adults, but that an emotional connection to social media use was harmful to health – indicating the impacts of social media are complex. That, to me, suggests it can be beneficial if it's used in a mindful manner.

Sax touches on how social media has forced and placed pressure on teenage girls to engage in the exchange of sexual pictures of themselves with their male counterparts. He says teenage girls “often feel pushed to self-objectify, to focus on how they look to others instead of on who they are on the inside,” but Sax fails to mention that women have been facing double standards in regards to their body since the beginning of time.

In a study in the Journal of Women and Culture in Society, , authors Viveca Greene and Amber Day cite the popular cultural belief “that women are often ‘asking for it’ through their behavior,” which they note includes style of dress and alcohol consumption. Girls are taught from a young age that dressing a certain way will give men the wrong impression, the authors assert, and this can lead to internal conflict for young women and elicit feelings of shame and guilt towards their own bodies.

Social media is not the issue, rather just an indicator of unfair and unequal perceptions of gender roles.

Social media is simply a mirror that reflects the long standing issues of societal expectations and gender stereotypes we hold on ourselves, our society and even our own children.

Beney, a 2022 Syracuse University graduate from Boston, is a visuals editor for Youthcast Media Group, other nonprofits and businesses.

By Hermes Falcon

Dr. Sax describes the battle young women have with gender and appearance. He mentions beauty salons catering to young girls, fashion trends coming and going, and other factors in North American style that make girls feel they have no other choice but to conform and present feminine. This is the same reason it took me so long to accept that I was trans.

Headshot of Hermes Falcon (Courtesy of Falcon).

But then Sax implies that conservative outfits are what’s best for women, while subtly looking down on some feminist ideals. He has a section titled “The Mixed-up Legacy of Germaine Greer,” where he says, “By chastising feminine modesty as a symptom of patriarchal oppression, Greer provided support to the idea that pole dancers are truly liberated women.”

Sax states that women are being chastised for dressing modestly when, really, women are critiqued for their clothes no matter how they dress. Veiled Muslim women are frowned upon and girls at the beach are scoffed at.

The definition of feminism varies by source. The oldest dictionary publisher, Merriam-Webster, defines it as the “belief in and advocacy of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes expressed especially through organized activity on behalf of women's rights and interests.” The education reference site ThoughtCo defines feminism as “an attempt to promote equality by challenging patriarchal social structures.”

I think being a feminist means doing what is empowering to you—whether it’s dressing in revealing outfits or veiling yourself. While he tries to explain how sexualizing women may harm them, Sax adds to a closed-minded culture by implying that women dress and behave in certain ways because men want them to, contributing to the idea that women who dress in certain “provocative” ways were “asking for it.”

Sax writes that some young women who identify as bisexual or lesbian do so for male validation. But a 2019 study published in the Journal of Interpersonal Violence found that lesbian and bisexual women experience higher rates of sexual assault and rape than heterosexual women, and that sexual orientation plays a role in a person’s risk of sexual victimization. With a pandemic of sexual assault affecting women throughout the U.S., this mindset is the last thing gay women need.

The points Sax attempts to make, in the end, can be as harmful as all the issues he talks about. The book is targeted to parents of young women, but it may promote a homophobic, conservative, and traditional mindset that may hurt girls and create unhealthy home environments—the exact thing Sax says he trying to prevent.

Falcon (he/they), a junior at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois, is a YMG intern from Miami.


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