The shocking results – which includes input from girls across Northern Ireland – reveal that sexual harassment, pressure over their appearance and online harm are among the reasons for a significant decline in girls’ happiness levels over the past 15 years.
Girlguiding’s annual Girls’ Attitudes Survey, supported by players of the People’s Postcode Lottery, reveals a steady decline in girls’ happiness year-on-year and an increase in stress and anxiety.
The survey documents how girls feel about their everyday lives, the pressures they face and the issues they care about. This year's findings reveal there are areas in girls' lives that are worse than when the survey began in 2009, and they're less happy.
The number of girls who describe themselves as very happy has decreased significantly (40 per cent in 2009 down to 17 per cent in 2023), with the steepest decline in girls aged seven to 10 (57 per cent in 2009 compared to 28 per cent in 2023).
The survey also revealed that 89 per cent of girls and young women between the ages of seven and 21 feel worried or anxious, compared to 78 per cent in 2016, with girls’ worries ranging from appearance pressures, online harms to being sexually harassed.
WHAT THE SURVEY FOUND:
In 2009, 72 per cent of girls and young women aged between seven and 21 said they were happy with how they looked. Sadly, this has fallen to 59 per cent in 2023.
62 per cent say they have been criticised or have had mean things said about how they look, compared to 49 per cent in 2016. Over two-thirds of girls (67 per cent) say they sometimes feel ashamed of the way they look because they're not like girls and women they see in the media and online. 39 percent of those aged 11-21 state that seeing images online where people are edited to look perfect, makes them feel bad about they look and feel.
The survey also found that a large number of girls between 11-21 (81 per cent) have experienced some form of threatening or upsetting behaviour online compared to 65 per cent in 2018). 83 per cent of girls aged 13-21 reported seeing upsetting content, such as self-harm or suicide, and 73 per cent have received unwanted sexual images.
The number of 13–21-year-old girls who have received sexist comments online has more than doubled since 2018 (57 per cent compared to 24 per cent). Unsurprisingly, 41 per cent of girls aged 11-21 revealed they often feel sad or depressed after spending time online and on social media.
Girls as young as seven are also experiencing harms online. 44 per cent said strangers have messaged them or sent friend requests while playing games online and 30 per cent have been contacted by someone they don’t know online, compared to 16 per cent in 2016.
A quarter of girls aged between seven and 10 say they’ve experienced online bullying, such as receiving mean comments or trolling (25 per cent), an increase from 13 per cent in 2016. Almost one fifth of girls aged 7-10 also reported that comments were made to them about their body online (19 per cent), which has more than doubled from 8 per cent in 2016.
Almost three in five girls aged 13-21 worry about being sexually harassed at school, in public or online (59 per cent). 44 per cent of girls aged 11-21 say they have been shouted or whistled at on the street on the way to and from school.
At school, 69 per cent of girls said boys have made comments about girls and women that they would describe as ‘toxic’. More than two in five girls (44 per cent) revealed boys at their school have made comments about girls and women that have made them feel scared for their safety. Just one in four girls (27 per cent) believe that sexist comments are dealt with seriously at school.
48 per cent of girls and young women aged 11-16 believe it’ll be harder for them to get a job when they leave education than it was for young people five years ago.
More than half of girls and young women aged 11-21 (59 per cent) worry they will not be able to afford a home in the future.
Girls’ aspirations have changed over the last 15 years. When thinking about what they’d like to achieve by the age of 30, girls aged between seven and 21 place the greatest value on owning (their) own house (52 per cent), over having a partner or being married (48 per cent) or having a worthwhile job (42 per cent).
In 2009 for over half (60 per cent) of girls having a partner or being married was their top priority. The desire to have children by the age of 30 has also dropped significantly from 47 per cent in 2009 to 33 per cent in 2023).
Leaders of the Girlguiding movement in Northern Ireland have described the survey results as “devastating”.
Debbie McDowell, Chief Commissioner of Girlguiding Ulster said: “The results of this important survey are shockingly clear and a cause for concern. Having volunteered as a guide leader for 26 years, I’m only too aware of the pressures girls face and have seen some struggle to cope.
"However, I’ve also seen how involvement in Girlguiding can be game-changing. By being part of our organisation, taking part in the purposeful programmes we offer, and with the support of our amazing volunteers, Girlguiding is helping girls tackle these issues head-on.
"At a local level my call to action would be to come on board – join as a member or volunteer as a leader - and become part of an organisation which continues to change to meet the needs of our evolving society.”
Claire Flowers, CEO of Girlguiding Ulster said: “It’s devastating to hear that girls’ happiness has steadily declined over the last 15 years. Girls are clearly feeling the pressure from all angles, from harm online, appearance and body image, to sexual harassment at school.
"Now more than ever Girlguiding, powered by volunteers, has an invaluable role to play in supporting girls’ wellbeing, mental health, and confidence. We’re proud to be able to offer a safe, inclusive space where girls can be themselves and have fun - all whilst developing essential skills for their future. By helping to build the resilience needed to navigate this difficult time and the relentless pressures they face, girlguiding is playing such an important role across our communities.”
At a UK-wide level, Girlguiding is calling on the government to take urgent action to reverse the decline in girls’ happiness and support girls with their wellbeing. Girlguiding would like to see more action to improve girls’ lives by addressing the sexual harassment, online harms and appearance pressures they face.