Girls in Ontario report feeling stressed, hopeless and overwhelmed by their day at twice the rate of boys, and heavy use of social media appears to make their mental health worse, according to a large-scale student survey released Wednesday.

Over all, the survey found students are increasingly absorbed by their smartphones. But while the results suggest more time spent on social media takes an increasing toll on mental health over all, additional data provided exclusively to The Globe and Mail revealed the trend was much more dramatic for girls than boys.

For instance, researchers found that 61 per cent of girls who used social media for more than five hours a day indicated moderate to serious psychological distress, compared with 33 per cent of boys. Girls who spent more time on social media were also more likely to say they had thought about suicide in the past year, an association, the research found, that was not significant for boys. At the same time, disconnecting entirely wasn’t necessarily a solution: girls especially who were never or rarely on social media reported slightly poorer mental health than those using only one hour a day.

The Ontario Student Drug Use and Health survey, which has been collecting data every two years since 1977, was conducted by the Toronto-based Centre for Addiction and Mental Health and surveyed 11,435 students from Grade 7 to 12 across Ontario in 2017. In the past 10 years, the survey has found a steady rise in the percentage of students reporting mental-health issues. More recent statistics suggest social media is an important factor, although how much it is the cause or a symptom of an existing problem isn’t clear. And many teens spending hours online are coping just fine – half of all students over all rated their mental health as either excellent or very good.

But, among those struggling, experts – and teenagers themselves – suggest social media may be stress-inducing for girls in particular because of how deeply it has become entangled with status, social relationships and self-esteem, all areas where female students express more difficulty than their male peers. Popular photo-sharing apps such as Instagram and Snapchat, where teens feel pressure to collect likes from peers and praise for looking good in pictures, may add to the pressure girls already feel. For instance, since 2001, the survey found the percentage of girls who say they are “too fat” has increased to 31 per cent from 23 per cent.

“There is a lot of calling each other out, and posting about one another, and trying to get a reaction out of it. Often the person doesn’t name names, but everybody knows who she is talking about. If you become a target of that, it is incredibly difficult,” said Brianne Moore, 20, who speaks to teenagers about her own experience with depression and bullying, as part of a program run by the Royal Mental Health Centre in Ottawa. Making things worse today is how often the bullying follows you home and even springs back years later. Recently, Ms. Moore says, she posted a comment that challenged some toxic behaviour online. After someone in her social circle gave a snarky personal response, another girl who had bullied Ms. Moore in middle school began liking that person’s post – one example, she cites, of the passive-aggressive behaviour that’s hard to bear and complicated to confront.

Social media creates this “need to achieve an impossible standard,” said Sahaana Ranganathan, 19, summer program facilitator with Girls Incorporated of Upper Canada, an organization that runs educational programs for girls from age six to 18. “And it is so easy to break someone down when you don’t see their reaction in person.”

For solutions, Ms. Moore and Ms. Rangathanan recommend focusing on online citizenship and encouraging girls to take mental-health breaks from social media. Kim Fenn, a staff facilitator at Girls Incorporated, said girls need to be encouraged to think about how they want to be treated online and in person and what they can do to boost positive mental health. In the survey, for instance, girls reported getting less sleep and exercise than boys – two activities that have an important influence on well-being. (Girls were less likely than boys to participate in sports, particularly in higher grades, according to the survey, but equally likely – at roughly 15 per cent – to report experiencing a concussion in the past year, a question asked for the first time in the 2017 survey.)

In the end, Ms. Moore pointed out, it’s also about knowing that their feelings will be taken seriously, not dismissed as teenage angst. One particularly worrisome finding in the survey was that 42 per cent of girls – twice as many as boys – said that when they needed help, they didn’t know where to turn.

“Some people say, ‘Oh, they are just looking for attention,’ ” Ms. Moore said. “But if they need attention, someone should be paying attention to them. It is not that we are being dramatic. It is how we are feeling.”

The Globe and Mail, July 25, 2018