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  • What is it about growing up female in our culture that is, evidently, becoming ever more stressful, and to what extent are these stresses directly related to fear of sexual predation? Tweet This
  • 14% of high school aged girls in 2021 reported they were forced to have sex at some point in their lives; 18% reported being the victim of some type of forced sexual act. Tweet This
  • 1 out of 4 high school girls reported actually constructing a suicide plan in 2021, up from 15% in 2011. Tweet This
Category: Education

The CDC recently published the 2021 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) report, and despite a considerable amount of hand wringing on the part of the mainstream press, not all of the news is disappointing. Let’s start with the good news, which tended to be obscured in public discussion. Risky sexual behavior (as defined by ever and current sexual activity) is down among high school teens.1 Substance abuse is also down, and so, apparently, is school bullying.2 Young people seem to be very connected to their parents, with fully 86% reporting that their parents monitor their whereabouts and whom they are with.3 

Unfortunately, however, the survey, which was taken in the fall of 2021, failed to control for pandemic lockdowns and school closings. Its authors even admit in the Executive Summary that Covid “may have impacted the school related YRBS variables...[as] disruptions in daily life remained common during the time of [data] collection.”4

To some extent, readers of the report can infer where the data might have been skewed by the circumstances of pandemic life. For example, we know from the survey that while school-related bullying was down, internet bullying may have increased slightly.Therefore, we might assume that some bullies, perhaps denied in-school opportunities during the pandemic, resorted to online harassment.

Moreover, considering the restrictions still current in the fall of 2021 on extracurricular and social activities, as well as the number of schools still closed to in-person instruction, young people’s overwhelming reports of parental monitoring may also have been, to some extent, artificially boosted. It is hard not to know where ones' children are and whom they are with when they are forced to isolate at home with only laptops to keep them company.   

So much for the good news. There is, of course, enough statistically significant bad news to justify the report's conclusion that “Young people are experiencing a level of distress that calls on us to act.”6 Overall, only 61% of teenagers felt a strong connection to school in 2021, a number which, even considering school closures, implies deep dissatisfaction with the educational enterprise.7 While the experience of school violence was down overall for boys and held fairly steady for girls, almost a tenth of those surveyed said they stayed home from school at some point in the year for personal “safety concerns.”8

It seems that there is generally a worrisome correlation between sexual activity and school violence, most especially for white girls, whose chances of experiencing sexual attack increased between 2011 and 2021. In fact,14% of high school aged girls surveyed in 2021 reported they were forced to have sex at some point in their lives; and nearly one in five (18%) reported being the victim of some type of sexual violence in the preceding 12 months.9

According to the survey, being a teenage girl carries with it another elevated risk—that of mental illness. Well more than half of teen girls (57%) reported feelings of sadness and hopelessness that were profound enough, over a two-week period, to interfere with their ability to complete their daily routines (as compared to 36% in 2011).10 Some of this extreme depression might be attributed to feelings of isolation caused by pandemic lockdowns but certainly not all of it. Among high school boys, the increase in self reports of depression were more modest (up from 21% in 2011 to 29% in 2021).   

All adolescents, of course, labor under a certain amount of Angst and Weltschmerz. And brief teen fantasies of suicide have never been particularly rare. They are the subject of a great deal of world literature. But it is alarming that one out of four high school girls reported actually constructing a suicide plan in 2021, up from 15% in 2011.11 

What is it about growing up female in our culture that is, evidently, becoming ever more stressful, and to what extent are these stresses directly related to fear of sexual predation? How does the Instagram phenomenon play into young women's insecurities and unhappiness? Are girls looking for ways of opting out of the pressures put on their sex?12  

Sociologists are well advised to research all these questions and more, but the 2021 YRBS survey does not touch upon issues of causation. Indeed, the survey begs more questions than it answers, and one is tempted to declare rash and ill-advised the authors’ disposition to prescribe yet more school-based health curricula and social services on the basis of the very superficial data it provides.13

Indeed, it would be appropriate at this point to mention a study from researchers at Columbia University. The study probes quite deeply into the causes of depression among teens in general, and links teen depression, especially among girls, to political ideology. Apparently, the more liberal their politics, the greater teens' tendency to have a pessimistic view of the world and to consign themselves to feelings of alienation and powerlessness.  

In this context, it might behoove us to ask whether politically progressive trends in academics—specifically in humanities education—are complicit in the increase of mental fragility among young people. In robbing school curricula of many of the historical and literary models that inspired previous generations with self-discipline and hope, educators may be demoralizing students, and unintentionally promoting a dangerous mental languor.

Dana Mack, the author of The Assault on Parenthood: How Our Culture Undermines the Family, is a writer and musician living in Connecticut. 

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or views of the Institute for Family Studies.

1. YRBS, p. 12.
2. YRBS on bullying, see p. 52, and on substance abuse, p. 28.
3. YRBS, p. 75
4. YRBS p.1
5. It should be noted here that the data on internet bullying is not clear. While the numbers seem to be stable for females and slightly lower for males, the authors contend otherwise.
6. YRBS, p. 4
7. YRBS p. 74
8. YRBS p. 47
9. YRBS, pgs. 53-55. A news report from the Washington Post of March 14, 2023, suggests that the CDC 's figures on sexual violence may be flawed, in that many schools declined to ask its survey questions regarding rape and forced sexual activity.
10. YRBS, p. 61
11. YRBS, p. 65
12. See, for example, Shrier, Abigail:  Irreversible Damage:  The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters, (Regnery, 2020)  
13. YRBS, p. 4