Research Watch: Girls Just Aren’t Having Fun

Diana Zuckerman
April 1, 1999

Barbara DeFoe Whitehead and Theodora Ooms

National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy

2100 M St., NW, Ste. 300

Washington, DC 20037

(202) 261-5655


Are girls less happy than they used to be? According to this report, surveys show that levels of happiness among high school senior girls have plummeted since the 1970s, at the same time that high school senior boys are feeling happier.

The theme of this report is that teen pregnancy and drug use, which get most of the attention in research on girls, are the tip of the iceberg of the “quiet disturbance” facing many girls, which also includes depression, suicidal thoughts, and anxiety.

Examples of the problems facing many girls include:
-Anxiety About Their Bodies — Concern about their changing bodies is a traditional rite of girlhood, but these anxieties are starting earlier than ever before.

In addition to concerns about sexual development, the carefree enjoyment of food is often replaced with eating disorders and obsessive preoccupation with calories.

-Unwanted Sexual Attention — Early puberty is a particular problem for some girls, but many girls experience sexual teasing and harassment, especially in school, where teachers may look the other way. By the time they are in high school, 12 percent of girls report having been sexually abused and 8 percent report they had been forced by a boyfriend to have sex against their will.

-Early Sex — Girls are having sexual intercourse earlier than ever. Seventeen is now the modal age of first intercourse for girls. The percent of 15- to 19-year-old girls that have had sexual intercourse has soared from 29 percent in 1970 to 50 percent in 1995.

The report includes a range of recommendations for schools, faith communities and youth development organizations. These include enforcing policies of zero tolerance for sexual harassment, encouraging girls to participate in competitive and recreational sports, creating peer group rituals that foster solidarity (including T-shirts or “recognition” jewelry) and creating formal occasions for girls to make public pledges to be guided by a shared set of beliefs and values.

The report criticizes the “hypersexualized media” and its pressure on girls to conform to unachievable body ideals. They recommend that the media present features and storylines that clearly communicate the risks of problem behaviors and the benefits of achievement, and present images that more accurately reflect the variety of shapes and sizes, and the racial and ethnic diversity, of adolescent girls.

Zuckerman, Diana. "Girls Just Aren’t Having Fun." Research Watch review of "Goodbye to Girlhood: What’s Troubling to Girls and What We Can Do About It". Youth Today, April 1999, p. 11.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.