Response to CDC’s “Teen Girls ‘Engulfed’ in Violence and Trauma” Report

Response to CDC’s “Teen Girls ‘Engulfed’ in Violence and Trauma” Report

MaryAnn Harlan | February 2023

I see we are at the stage in the media narrative where we are once again worried about our girls. On Feb 13th the headline at the Washington Post declared “Teen Girls ‘engulfed’ in Violence and Trauma, the CDC finds”. I don’t mean to make light of the CDC data on Youth Risk Behaviors because there is concerning data. But as someone who investigated media narratives about girlhood I couldn’t help but heave a heavy sigh. Are we really back here? It seems we are.

What was interesting is that after the first few paragraphs about an uptick in experiencing sexual violence the article focused on the mental health findings; significant increases over ten years in behaviors that could be considered symptoms of depression and suicidal thoughts and actions. It was left to the reader to correlate the uptick with the increase in suicidal ideation and depressive behavior. And that isn’t the correlation the article went on to make.

I was particularly frustrated by the gendered analysis. Girls, according to the WaPO expert, are more attuned to their feelings and therefore more likely to self-report depressive symptoms. Boys are more likely to “mask” symptoms and be aggressive. Not to mention, according to the
same quote, girls are more likely to be vulnerable to social media. Except the report didn’t actually ask about social media. So, we don’t really know if this is why girls are reporting higher rates of attempted suicide based on CDC’s data or that boys aren’t.

It is convenient to focus on girls’ emotions and so-called capacity to name their depression. But it ignores larger issues that CDC’s survey doesn’t address. Others will address some of these issues related to the actual questions, the stats, and what is missing from CDC’s report and problematic data, but I worry about the narratives the media creates.

Narratives about girls at risk quite frequently ignore race, class, age, geography, gender identification (beyond the binary), sexual orientation, disability, etc. As we saw the last time the girls at risk media narrative dominated the headlines, the imagined girl is generally white and middle class, not to mention able-bodied and cis. Monies, policies, programs flow into “fixing the imagined girl’s problem and left behind are girls who don’t fit this narrative.

Furthermore, it doesn’t take into account girls, or frankly all youth’s, own capacity to state what they need, to articulate what their actual problem is and act on it. The narrative becomes embedded in popular narratives, news articles heavily reliant on anecdote, after school special type plot lines on television and in books, popular nonfiction, and parenting advice. It is nothing short of disinformation using imagined girls as props. And I guess I am left asking who benefits from this narrative? Because that is in my estimation the real danger to youth.

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