We all know that teen girls are suffering today. But last week’s report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that nearly 3 in 5 — 57% — of teen girls in the United States felt “persistently sad or hopeless” and that 30% of them had seriously considered attempting suicide. The mental health of our young people is spiraling out of control.

Though boys are also struggling, as indicated by a persistent and growing gender achievement gap, the rate of depression among girls is double that of boys and has increased nearly 60% over the past decade.

Women have always had higher rates of depression than men. But as award-winning journalist Donna Nakazawa recently wrote in “Girls on the Brink,” for girls today, “a rising number of external pressures” make the critical neurodevelopmental transition of puberty far more psychologically challenging. Big Tech appears to be playing a critical role.

When Jean Twenge identified a spike in adolescent mental health challenges that closely paralleled increased digital media consumption back in 2017, scholars and parents began to wonder if social media was a major culprit in girls’ declining emotional well-being. 

Today, girls’ innate sensitivity to their environment has to develop within a heightened culture of performance, comparison and judgment, to say nothing of rampant sexualization and cultural misogyny. As Nakazawa notes, girls are far more likely than boys to be “liked” or “disliked” on social media based on their looks, and girls learn quickly that the more clothes they take off, the more “likes” they will get. Such a world cannot help but exacerbate the normal insecurities inherent to development, undermining an already fragile sense of self.

Newer research indicates that yes, social media is a factor, with some adolescents and young adults especially affected by platforms like TikTok and Instagram. The largest study to date found that girls between the ages of 11-13 appeared to be especially vulnerable. And Facebook’s own research, leaked by a whistleblower last year, revealed a link for teen girls between Instagram use and increased suicidal thoughts (13.5%), eating disorders (17%) and feeling worse about their bodies (32%).

In the wake of findings like these, President Joe Biden called on Washington to “hold social media platforms accountable for the national experiment they are conducting on our children for profit.” But so far, Congress has failed to find common ground and pass legislation to protect our children.

So it falls to states like Utah to put policies in place that will help our teens. Gov. Spencer Cox kicked off the effort in the Beehive State with an ambitious agenda that included age verification and parental permission for use of social media platforms, bans on Big Tech algorithms targeting children, and a public education campaign designed to help parents and teens understand the risks of social media.

Utah House Bill 311 is a great start — invalidating minor online contracts without parental consent, prohibiting a social media company from using a design or feature that the company knows causes a minor to have an addiction to a social media platform, and authorizing private right of actions for harm caused to minors, even a rebuttable presumption for harm caused to those under 16.

Utah Senate Bill 152 does even more. It will stiffen the law’s requirements for parental permission and age verification, ban data collection on minors and give power to parents to protect their own teens from the downsides of platforms like TikTok and Instagram. 

Perspective: It’s time to treat Big Tech like Big Tobacco
Does routinely checking social media change teen brain development?

To be sure, social media is not the only factor in the mental health crisis. For some kids, social media may strengthen their sense of connectedness by allowing them to find or deepen ties with friends. But for many, there is a darker reality. 

Social media platforms are businesses seeking to perpetuate and expand use of their product for profit. Inherent to the social media structure is the incentive to get views, likes, and comments, rewarding users for more engagement, including when the content is extreme and dangerous. In practice, this has meant increased access to dangerous content promoting self-harm, suicide, eating disorders, sexual exploitation and more to impressionable youth whose searches cause the platform algorithms to serve up ever-stronger content. In such a climate, youth are especially vulnerable to both see and act in ways that are harmful. 

One of the most tragic findings in the CDC report was that 1 in 5 teen girls experienced sexual violence in the past year — up 20% since 2017. And almost 15% of teen girls said they were forced at some time to have sex, up 27% since 2019. As adolescent researcher Peggy Orenstein wrote in The New York Times, the internet, smartphones and video-sharing sites have made free porn the “default sex educator,” bombarding young men with “images of female sexual availability and male sexual entitlement.”

And Forbes recently spotlighted hundreds of TikTok livestreams in which viewers urged young girls “to perform acts” that come close to crossing the line of child pornography, then rewarded them with gifts, money or comments. 

As Orenstein wrote for the Times, in spite of a “new imperative to be scrupulous about affirmative consent,” digital media has fed and fueled a deeply broken sexual culture that “urges boys toward disrespect and detachment in their intimate encounters,” increasing the likelihood of them using “coercion or force,” to get what they want. Exposure to sexual content in media has consistently been associated with greater tolerance for sexual harassment and the objectification of women. A reality in which many teens spend seven to nine hours each day on screens has profoundly magnified that exposure. 

The latest CDC numbers tell us that an all-hands-on-deck response is required to address the malevolent dimensions of today’s Big Tech platforms. We need to educate parents and teens about the downsides. But education is not enough. We also need lawmakers to step up and do more to protect our teens, especially our teenage girls, and empower parents to do what they need to do to help their children navigate the critical transition of adolescence — including online.

Jenet Jacob Erickson is a fellow of the Wheatley Institute at Brigham Young University. Brad Wilcox, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, is a fellow of the Institute for Family Studies and the American Enterprise Institute.