Decline in happiness of young women intensified by pandemic

7 September 2021

  • 62% of girls and young women aged 7-21 have felt lonelier this past year. 
    Nearly three-quarters (71%) of girls and young women aged 7-21 have experienced online harm, with over one quarter (28%) of girls and young women aged 11-21 having faced harassment online, including unwanted or hateful messages and threats, and half of girls have received sexist comments.
    Over a quarter (26%) of girls aged 11-21 have received unwanted sexual images online and 14% aged 13-21 had experienced pressure to share images. 
    Girlguiding is calling for urgent action from the UK Government to revert the trend in decline in happiness amongst girls through better support for their wellbeing, education and wider opportunities .

Girlguiding’s latest Girls’ Attitudes Survey,  supported by players of People’s Postcode Lottery,  reveals happiness amongst girls and young women continues to dramatically decline more than a decade on  since the annual research into issues impacting the lives of girls and young women first began. 

Accelerated and intensified by the pandemic, the number of girls (67%)  feeling more sad,  anxious or worried is at an all-time high (increasing from 53% aged 7-10, to 70% aged 11-16 and 78% aged 17-21)  with only 63% of girls now  describing  themselves as ‘happy most of the time’ -  down from 88% in 2009 and  81% in 2018,  according to the research.

Sadly,  for younger girls the decline in happiness appears  even greater with only 25% of girls aged 7-10 reporting they feel ‘very happy most of the time’ compared to  43% in 2018.  The research found  32%  of  all girls feel ‘unhappy most of the time’  and  62% of girls aged 7-21  have felt  lonelier over the last year,  with this  even higher for LGBQ+ girls (77%). The feeling of loneliness was also found to increase with age, from 54% for girls aged 7-10, to 60% aged 11-16 and 72% aged 17-21.

The findings also revealed that concerningly, the majority (71%) of girls and young women aged 7-21 have experienced online harms in the past year, including appearance related harms. Almost half (49%) of girls aged 7-10 experienced online harm, rising substantially to 73% for girls aged 11-16 and a staggering 91% for those aged 17-21. Over a quarter (28%) of all girls aged 7-21 had experienced people pretending to be someone they’re not online. Positively, almost one third (30%) of girls aged 7-21 said being online during the pandemic enabled closer relationships with friends and family they weren’t in touch with as often before. 

For girls aged 11-21, identified online harms experienced included:  

  • Misinformation (55%) 
  • Hate speech (53%) 
  • Sexist comments or ‘jokes’ (50%) 
  • Images that made them feel insecure about their appearance (45%) 
  • Harassment, such as unwanted or hateful messages or threats (28%) 
  • Unwanted sexual images (26%) 
  • Bullying (21%) 
  • Pressure to share images (14%) (Aged 13-21) 
  • Cyberstalking (11%) 

For girls aged 7-10, the research revealed experienced online harms included:  

  • Receiving mean comments (29%) 
  • Seeing fake information (26%) 
  • Encountering people pretending to be someone they’re not (18%) 
  • Seeing rude pictures (11%) 

Sadly, the research revealed that disabled girls and those that identify as LGBQ+ are more likely to experience online harm.  42%  of  LGBQ+ girls and young women aged 11-21  faced online harassment over the last 12 months, compared to 24%  of heterosexual girls and young women. 

40%  of disabled girls aged 11-21 experienced harassment online compared to 25% of girls and young women without a disability.

Girlguiding Advocate, Amanda, aged 17, said: “Sadly I don’t find the results of the research surprising. We’re exposed to more and more pressures, both online – from harassment to images portraying unrealistic ideals of ‘perfection’ – and as a result of the pandemic and the disruption it’s brought to everyday life. 

“Pressures like these are directly impacting the confidence and happiness of girls and young women in the UK. Urgent action is needed to revert this devastating trend in declining happiness amongst girls through better support for their wellbeing as we recover from Covid-19.” 

The survey also found girls are unavoidably seeing unrealistic and unattainable images of ‘perfection’ in online adverts and on social media. Those who had come across images that made them feel insecure about their own appearance, said this was because images feature women with the same ‘perfected’ look (78%), and they felt pressured to look more like the women they see (66%), or that the images are unrealistic and use airbrushing or filters (60%).

For half of girls aged 11-21 (51%) and almost a quarter of girls aged 7-10 (22%) being on video calls more over the past 18 months has intensified these feelings of self-consciousness.

Almost all  girls and young women  (94%) aged 11-21  said more should be done to protect young people from body image pressures online and 90% aged 11-21 want stricter rules to stop online advertisers bombarding girls and young women with weight-loss or ‘appearance-improving’ ads. 

Girlguiding Chief Executive Angela Salt OBE said:  “The pandemic has had a significant impact on all aspects of girls’ and young women’s lives, both exacerbating existing pressures and adding new worries. Now more than ever Girlguiding has an invaluable role to play in continuing to support girls’ wellbeing, and we’re proud to be able to offer a space where girls can be themselves, have fun and do the things they’ve missed out on this year - all  whilst developing essential skills for their future, helping to build resilience and confidence to navigate this difficult time and the relentless pressures they face.” 

Laura Chow, Head of Charities at People’s Postcode Lottery says:  “Girls and young women are facing so many challenges, and as well as taking action to tackle these pressures, having access to tools to build resilience and confidence is crucial to ensure girls can be positive and confident about their future. 

“The support young members receive from their friends and the volunteers in Girlguiding is vital during this time of recovery, and I’m pleased that the funding raised by players of People’s Postcode Lottery is enabling this to happen.” 

Girlguiding is urging the UK government for urgent action to revert the trend in decline in happiness amongst girls through better support for their wellbeing, education and wider opportunities. As part of this, the charity is calling for all online harms legislation to include the widespread and damaging harms girls face online, including pressures around their appearance. 

This has a huge impact on their confidence, self-esteem and ability to freely use online spaces. It must also include the sexist harassment and abuse they can face.  

Additionally, Girlguiding is asking for more to be done to protect children from adverts on social media for weight-loss and ‘appearance-enhancing’ products, and to ensure images on social media and online adverts that have been digitally altered have been clearly labelled as such. 

Through the charity’s innovative peer education program*, core programme**  and wellbeing and resilience tools, Girlguiding consistently continues to provide help and support to girls and young women to navigate the pressures they face in their everyday lives in the girl only space it offers to its members. 

As Girlguiding returns to a mixture of face-to-face and virtual guiding, the charity wants to give more girls and young women the opportunity to benefit from all that guiding has to offer.  

As the leading charity for girls and young women in the UK, Girlguiding works with decision makers, funders and other stakeholders across society to help tackle the undue pressures girls and young women face. Girlguiding wants to ensure children and young people’s concerns are at the heart of government decision-making and girls voices are heard on the issues that affect them.

 In June 2019, Girlguiding responded to the government’s consultation on its Online Harms White Paper calling for the gendered harms girls and young  women face  online to be recognised in this legislation. The charity will continue to share  girls' and young women’s experiences to ensure this is addressed.   

Girlguiding’s full Girls’ Attitudes Survey 2021 is available to read and download in full.