The shocking drop in the amount of time British girls spend together IRL

On the rise.
On the rise.
Image: Unsplash/Eric Ward
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In the UK, the kids are not all right—at least, the girls aren’t as happy as they could be.

A recent survey of girls’ attitudes, published by UK charity Girlguiding, showed that only a quarter of girls ages seven to 21 reported being “very happy,” down from 41% in 2009. Nearly two-thirds (64%) of girls and young women between the ages of 11-21 said they know someone who had experienced an anxiety disorder, up from 50% in 2014. The main culprits? Social media, exams and tests, and stressful relationships with friends.

Meanwhile, in August, a report from the Children’s Society noted a recent rise in girls’ unhappiness. On a 10-point scale of self-reported happiness, the average score for girls aged 11-15 fell from 8.2 in 2010 to 7.8 in 2016 (during the same time boys scores stayed roughly the same, from 8.3 to 8.2). The report found a shocking one in five 14-year-old British girls had self-harmed in the past year, compared to one in 10 boys.

Social media is often made out to be public enemy number one, with anxieties about anything from appearance to friendship issues amplified by the 24-7 cycle of shares and likes and Snaps. But tucked away in the GirlGuiding survey was another startling statistic about how girls’ spend their time. Fewer girls reported being allowed to go out on their own, to go to school, go to the shops, or the park. More than half of those aged 13 to 21 reported feeling unsafe walking home alone, have experienced harassment or know someone who has. Nearly half said they felt unsafe using public transport. And when asked where girls go to meet friends, the charge was stark:

As many people debate why kids are so fragile, and unable to face conflict or manage debate, many wonder if it because they do not get enough time to just spend time together, face-to-face. When they play together as children, they have adults supervising their every interaction; when they are tweens and teens, their days are jam-packed with structured activities, which leaves them with less time for hanging out. Perhaps kids’ over-scheduled lives aren’t just making them less healthy, but less happy, too.

“Relationships are an essential element of contentment and it may be no coincidence that 10 years ago, girls of all ages were socializing more and comparing their lives online less,” the report said. Indeed, a separate 2018 Common Sense media report showed that the share of teens saying their favorite way to communicate was in person dropped by almost half between 2012 and 2018. Texting is now teens’ communication method of choice (though it also showed that social media, for the most part, made kids feel more socially connected and happy, not less).

Tim Gill, author of No Fear: Growing up in a risk averse society, wonders whether kid’s lack of choice may be at the heart of their growing unhappiness. “We know children value their everyday freedoms and choices,” he said, referencing the 2013 Children’s Society Good Childhood studies, which showed that simply having choice in life had the highest correlation to kids’ reported well-being. And children have less everyday freedom than they used to have. “I think it’s entirely reasonable to think that—amongst other things—less everyday freedom means less happy children.”

The reports are not devoid of good news. According to the GirlsGuiding survey, the share of girls saying they enjoyed ICT (information communications technology, a school subject in the UK) skyrocketed from 19% in 2009 to 43% in 2018. And while girls reported having more friends with mental health issues, they also said they were more comfortable talking about it. More girls identify as feminists, and more 7-10 year olds say they want to be leaders in their fields. But it’s clear that girls’ growing unhappiness needs to be addressed—and more time IRL may be key.