Feb. 14, 2023 – The recent discovery of a dramatic spike in the number of teen girls saying they've been victims of sexual assault could have a now-familiar cause: the COVID-19 pandemic.
The CDC reported Monday that teenage girls are experiencing record high levels of sexual violence, and nearly 3 in 5 girls report feeling persistently sad or hopeless.
The numbers were even worse for students who identify as LGBTQ+, nearly 70% of whom report experiencing feelings of persistent sadness and hopeless, and nearly 1 in 4 (22%) LGBTQ+ teens had attempted suicide in 2021, according to the report.
Protective factors, such as being in school and participating in various activities, were largely nonexistent for many teens during the pandemic, which could explain the spike in sexual violence cases, says Carlos A. Cuevas, PhD, clinical psychologist and Center on Crime Race and Injustice co-director at Northeastern University in Boston.
That -- on top of other mental, emotional, and physical stressors amid the COVID-19 crisis -- created an unsafe and unhealthy environment for some girls.
“Once people started to kind of come out of the pandemic and we started to see the mental health impact of the pandemic, there were waiting lists everywhere. So being able to access those resources became more difficult because we just had a boom in demand for a need for mental health services,” says Cuevas.
Teen girls are also more likely to be victims of sexual assault than teen boys, which could explain the why they are overrepresented in the data, Cuevas says.
If your child experiences sexual assault, there are a few things parents should keep in mind. For one, it's important that your child knows that they are the victims in the situation, Cuevas says.
“I think sometimes you still get kind of a victim blaming sort of attitude, even unintentionally,” he says. “Really be clear about the message that it's not their fault and they are not responsible in any way."
Parents should also look out for resources their child might need to work through any trauma they may have experienced. For some, that could be medical attention due to a physical act of assault. For others, it could be mental health services or even legal remedies, such as pressing charges.
“You want to give those options but the person who was the victim really is the one who determines when and how those things happen,” Cuevas says. “So really to be able to be there and ask them what they need and try to facilitate that for them.”
One more thing: Your teen sharing their sexual assault experiences on social media could result in several outcomes.
“Some teens will talk about this [sexual assault] and post on TikTok, Snapchat, and Instagram, and that means that they may get people giving feedback that's supportive or giving feedback that's hurtful,” says Cuevas. “Remember that we're talking about kids; they're not sort of developmentally able to plan and think, 'Oh, I may not get all the support that I think I'm going to get when I post this.'”
Goldie Taylor, an Atlanta-based journalist, political analyst and human rights activist, has her own history with sexual assault as a young girl. She experienced it as a 11-year-old, a story she shares in her memoir, The Love You Save.
When Taylor saw the news of the CDC study, she hurried to read it herself. She, too, see signs of the pandemic’s work in the report.
“While notably mental health continues to be a post-pandemic story given the issues surrounding quarantine, I also believe it fueled a renewed interest in seeking care— and measuring impacts on children,” Taylor says. “What was most startling, even for me, were the statistics around sexual violence involving young girls. We know from other studies that the vast majority of pregnancies among girls as young as 11 involve late teen and adult males.”
Unfortunately, Taylor says little has changed since her own traumatic experience as a child. There was little support available then. And now, she says, “there are far too few providers in this country to deal effectively with what can only be called a pandemic of sexual violence.”
The study's findings are indeed a stark reminder of the needs of our children, says Debra Houry, MD, MPH, the CDC's acting principal deputy director, in a press release about the findings.
"High school should be a time for trailblazing, not trauma. These data show our kids need far more support to cope, hope, and thrive," she says.
The new analysis looked at data from 2011 to 2021 from the CDC's Youth Risk and Behavior Survey, a semiannual analysis of the health behaviors of students in grades 9-12. The 2021 survey is the first conducted since the COVID-19 pandemic began and included 17,232 respondents.
Although the researchers saw signs of improvement in risky sexual behaviors and substance abuse, as well as fewer experiences of bullying, the analysis found youth mental health worsened over the past 10 years. This trend was particularly troubling for teenage girls: 57% said they felt persistently sad or hopeless in 2021, a 60% increase from a decade ago. By comparison, 29% of teenage boys reported feeling persistently sad or hopeless, compared to 21% in 2011.
Nearly one-third of girls (30%) reported seriously considering suicide, up from 19% in 2011. In teenage boys, serious thoughts of suicide increased from 13% to 14% from 2011 to 2021. The percentage of teenage girls who had attempted suicide in 2021 was 13%, nearly twice that of teenage boys (7%).
More than half of students with a same-sex partner (58%) reported seriously considering suicide, and 45% of LGBTQ+ teens reported the same thoughts. One-third of students with a same-sex partner reported attempting suicide in the past year.
The report did not have trend data on LGBTQ+ students because of changes in survey methods. The 2021 survey did not have a question about gender identity, but this will be incorporated into future surveys, researchers say.
Hispanic and multiracial students were more likely to experience persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness compared with their peers, with 46% and 49%, respectively, reporting these feelings. From 2011 to 2021, the percentage of students reporting feelings of hopelessness increased in each racial and ethnic group. The percentage of Black, Hispanic, and white teens who seriously considered suicide also increased over the decade. (A different CDC report released last week found that the rate of suicide among Black people in the United States aged 10-24 jumped 36.6% between 2018 and 2021, the largest increase for any racial or ethnic group.)
The survey also found an alarming spike in sexual violence toward teenage girls. Nearly 1 in 5 females (18%) experienced sexual violence in the past year, a 20% increase from 2017. More than 1 in 10 teen girls (14%) said they had been forced to have sex, according to the researchers.
Rates of sexual violence was even higher in lesbian, bisexual, gay, or questioning teens. Nearly 2 in 5 teens with a partner of the same sex (39%) experienced sexual violence, and 37% reported being sexually assaulted. More than 1 in 5 LGBTQ+ teens (22%) had experienced sexual violence, and 20% said they had been forced to have sex, the report found.
Among racial and ethnic groups, American Indian and Alaskan Native and multiracial students were more likely to experience sexual violence. The percentage of white students reporting sexual violence increased from 2017 to 2021, but that trend was not observed in other racial and ethnic groups.
Delaney Ruston, MD, an internal medicine specialist in Seattle and creator of Screenagers, a 2016 documentary about how technology affects youth, says excessive exposure to social media can compound feelings of depression in teens — particularly, but not only, girls.
"They can scroll and consume media for hours, and rather than do activities and have interactions that would help heal from depression symptoms, they stay stuck," Ruston says in an interview. "As a primary care physician working with teens, this is an extremely common problem I see in my clinic."
One approach that can help, Ruston says, is behavioral activation. "This is a strategy where you get them, usually with the support of other people, to do small activities that help to reset brain reward pathways so they start to experience doses of well-being and hope that eventually reverses the depression. Being stuck on screens prevents these healing actions from happening."
The report also emphasized the importance of school-based services to support students and combat these troubling trends in worsening mental health. "Schools are the gateway to needed services for many young people," the report says. "Schools can provide health, behavioral, and mental health services directly or establish referral systems to connect to community sources of care."
"Young people are experiencing a level of distress that calls on us to act with urgency and compassion," Kathleen Ethier, PhD, director of the CDC's Division of Adolescent and School Health, says in a statement. "With the right programs and services in place, schools have the unique ability to help our youth flourish."