Sexualised images of women in advertising and social media are bringing on an increase in emotional problems among young girls, new figures suggest. Girls aged 11 to 13 are now more likely to worry, lack confidence or feel nervous than they were five years back for the reason that they feel under pressure.

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The rising emotional problems in girls may be linked to stress caused by seeing images of women portrayed as sex objects on Facebook, Twitter and other websites, researchers from University College London believe. A survey of 1,600 pupils in Years 7 and 8 showed that increase in time spent on social media and the pressure to perform academically did contribute to the rise.

In the study mental health of schoolchildren in 2014 was compared with a sample from 2009. Questions were posed to girls and boys, like how often they worry, feel unhappy, get nervous, lose confidence, feel scared or suffer from headaches and sickness. It found that today an average of three girls in every 2014 class feel sad or nervous, compared to just one or two in a 2009 class.

There was also a rise in emotional problems in schoolgirls — from 13 per cent in the 2009 study to 20 per cent – one in five – in 2014. Lead author Dr Elian Fink said: ‘Five years is a relatively short period of time, so we were surprised to see such a sharp spike in emotional problems among girls.’

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Co-author Dr Miranda Wolpert said: ‘This study highlights the significant and growing emotional problems reported by young girls today. ‘We can’t say for sure why problems are increasing, but there are many factors that could contribute. ‘These include increasing stresses on girls and young women, ranging from academic pressure to their increasing sexualisation and objectification amplified by social media.’

This is the latest study that suggests anxiety is rising among schoolgirls. Official figures show that one in five girls of primary school age has been on a diet. Research by the Government Equalities Office found that as young girls progress through school, their body image drops rapidly.

According to Body Confidence Progress Report 2015 poor body image is a ‘public health problem’ and an ‘equalities issue’ that can limit the opportunities available to women and girls. Furthermore, it discovered that nine out of ten teenage girls think statements about girls and women on TV and in magazines focus too much on what they look like, instead of what they achieve.