Girls’ happiness levels are at their lowest levels in 15 years according to Girlguiding’s annual survey as concerns about appearance, online harms and sexual harassment all trouble young people.
Less than a fifth of all those who took part described themselves as very happy, down from 40% of respondents in 2009 when the Girls’ Attitudes Survey began, with the majority (89%) asked this time around saying they felt generally worried or anxious.
Researchers said the sharpest decline in happiness was among the youngest girls – those aged between seven and 10 years old, at just 28% when asked this year compared with 57% of those asked in 2009.
A total of 2,614 girls and young women aged between seven and 21 took part in this year’s research between February and April, with the questionnaire being adapted to make it suitable for different age groups.
When it came to appearance, more than two-thirds of girls (67%) aged between 11 and 21 said they sometimes feel ashamed of the way they look because they are not like girls and women they see in the media and online.
More than a third (39%) of this age group state that seeing images online where people are edited to look perfect makes them feel bad about how they look and feel.
While in 2009 almost three quarters (72%) of all those surveyed said they were happy with how they looked, this fell to 59% this year.
Just over a third of those (34%) aged between 11 and 21 said they would consider some form of cosmetic surgery, a rise from 29% in 2018, with 23% in this age group this year saying they would consider various procedures after having seen images of influencers or celebrities getting them done.
Online harms have affected even the youngest girls, with 44% of those aged between seven and 10 saying strangers have messaged them or sent friend requests while playing games online.
The issue of being contacted online by strangers appeared to have grown, with 30% of this age group saying this has happened them, compared with 16% in 2016.
Other findings in the survey, which is supported by players of the People’s Postcode Lottery, showed that the number of 13 to 21-year-olds who have received sexist comments online has more than doubled since 2018 (57% compared with 24%)
Some 41% of those aged 11 to 21 said they often feel sad or depressed after spending time online and on social media.
Four in 10 (44%) of those aged 11 to 21 said they had been shouted at or whistled at in the street on the way to or from school, the survey’s section on sexual harassment found.
More than two thirds (69%) of 11 to 16-year-old girls said boys at their school had made comments about girls and women that they would describe as “toxic”, while 44% said male pupils had made comments about girls and women that have made them feel scared for their safety.
Aspirations have changed significantly since the survey began, with more than half (52%) of all those asked saying they place the greatest value on owning their own house – prioritising this over having a partner or being married (48%) or having a worthwhile job (42%).
These statistics compare with 60% of those surveyed in 2009 saying 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% in 2009 to 33% in 2023, Girlguiding said.
Girls and young women also revealed their fears for the future, with 48% of those aged 11-16 saying they feel it will be more difficult for them to get a job when they leave education than it was for young people five years ago.
More than half (59%) of those aged between 11 and 21 said they are worried they will not be able to afford a home in the future.
Girlguiding, which describes itself as the UK’s largest youth organisation dedicated to girls, said the Government must take urgent action to address the decline in happiness, by supporting girls and young women with their wellbeing through addressing the sexual harassment, online harms and appearance pressures.
Angela Salt, Girlguiding chief executive, said: “It’s devastating to hear that girls’ happiness has steadily declined over the last 15 years. It’s clear girls are feeling pressures from all angles, from harm online, to appearance pressures to sexual harassment at school.
“Now more than ever Girlguiding, powered by volunteers, has an invaluable role to play in continuing to support girls’ wellbeing and confidence, and we’re proud to be able to offer a space where girls can be themselves and have fun – all while developing essential skills for their future, helping to build resilience to navigate this difficult time and the relentless pressures they face.”
The majority of survey respondents were girls and young women in England, with 242 taking part in Wales, 188 in Northern Ireland and 167 in Scotland.
Childline said the Girlguiding survey findings were “sobering and echo the concerns that our trained Childline counsellors hear on a daily basis”.
Kieran Lyons, from the charity, said: “Every year, thousands of girls contact the service about issues that are affecting their mental health and wellbeing including pressures around their appearance, as well as harassment and abuse that they face online and in the classroom.”
A Government spokesperson said: “All children deserve to grow up in a safe environment and the Government is committed to supporting women and girls to feel safe everywhere.
“It is unacceptable that women and girls suffer disproportionately from abuse online and the Online Safety Bill takes important steps to address this.
“Through the mandatory Relationship, Sex and Health Education curriculum all pupils learn about respectful relationships and that everyday sexism, misogyny and gender stereotyping are not tolerated.
“We are also extending the coverage of Mental Health Support Teams in schools and colleges to an estimated 44% of pupils and learners by the end of this financial year and at least 50% by spring 2025.”