Teenage girls are facing impossible expectations

Rachel Simmons is the author of "Enough As She Is: How to Help Girls Move Beyond Impossible Standards of Success to Live Happy, Healthy, Fulfilling Lives." Follow her on Twitter @racheljsimmons. The views expressed in this commentary are her own.

(CNN)At a moment when girls enjoy historic opportunity -- watching Chloe Kim and Mikaela Shiffrin soar to gold, and Oprah preach girl power from the Golden Globes stage -- teen girls tell researchers they are twice as depressed, anxious and stressed out as boys. And though girls beat out boys in college and graduate school admissions, according to a University of California-Los Angeles study, female college freshmen have never been lonelier or less happy.

In the so-called age of girl power, we have failed to cut loose our most regressive standards of female success -- like pleasing others and looking sexy -- and to replace them with something more progressive -- like valuing intelligence and hard work. Instead, we have shoveled more and more expectation onto the already robust pile of qualities we expect girls to possess.
Rachel Simmons
And social media -- where, according to Pew Research, girls tend to dominate, using visual platforms like Instagram and Snapchat in far greater numbers than boys -- isn't helping the matter. The pressure to get at least one like per minute on Instagram and keep up scores of daily Snapchat "streaks" is unending.
    "I can't go to sleep at night until I answer all my notifications," one high school student told me last week. Adolescent girls get the least sleep of any group of youth.
      Plus, a daily feed of friends and celebrities showing off tight abs and thin arms deepens girls' body shame, new research has found.
      Girls who spend the most time using technology, a 2017 study revealed, were most likely to say they were sad or depressed nearly every day. They were also more likely to want to change their appearance, not enjoy coming to school and not participate in sports and other activities.
      But social media and the internet are only part of the issue. I have been asking adolescent girls to describe what it means to them to be successful. They tell me they are under pressure to be superhuman: ambitious, smart and hardworking, athletic, pretty and sexy, socially active, nice and popular -- both online and off.
      Psychologists call this "role overload" -- too many roles for a single person to play -- and "role conflict"-- when the roles you play are at odds with one another. The effort required to get a bikini body will cut away at the hours you need to spend in the lab to get into medical school.
      The sheer impossibility of measuring up has left a generation of girls with the enduring belief that, no matter how many achievements they rack up, they are not enough as they are. The path their mothers and grandmothers cleared so their girls could enjoy every opportunity is marked by self criticism, overthinking and fear of failure.
      In other words, we are raising a generation of girls who may look exceptional on paper but are often anxious and overwhelmed in life -- who feel that, no matter how hard they try, they will never be smart enough, successful enough, pretty enough, thin enough, well liked enough, witty enough online or sexy enough.
      An "anything is possible" mentality has transformed into a mental health crisis. Affluent girls, in particular, who get the most access and opportunity to achieve, exhibit more adjustment problems, across more domains, than any other group of American youth -- yet continue to push themselves forward. And high achieving girls, Stanford professor Carol Dweck found, are the group of youth most "debilitated" by failure.