SHE backflips on the grass. Run, turn, tumble, repeat. It’s a three-second clip on my daughter’s Instagram. It doesn’t mirror her life offline, instead it captures and augments snippets of her blossoming independence. Selfies with puppy ears or flower crowns. Frappuccinos with her name in Sharpie scrawl. Gymnastics. It’s a patchwork of bits that represent a pre-teen’s life. It’s not real, and yet it’s what she and her friends spend most of their time doing. It makes me uncomfortable because I know it’s so addictive, and that in an instant, it has the potential to cut you two.

Each generation has its moral panic: TV gluttony, violent games, and now social media addiction. But there’s growing evidence that the latter is causing serious harm. Today’s expedited adolescence is caught in the parenthetic brace of likes and comments. The apparent ingredients of self-worth read more like a social media marketing algorithm than the emotional needs of a person. And the girls are struggling to cope.

Sixty-eight per cent more girls under 17 are self-harming. Self-poisoning has upped 50 per cent in 10 years. Body dissatisfaction, mental distress and depression rates are sky-rocketing. The biggest spikes occurring in the last five years, with an NHS study noting the confluence with increased social media use. But blaming the platforms glosses over a deeper problem.

This isn’t something peculiar to girlhood or to the media itself– girls aren’t less robust than boys and channels aren’t inherently bad. It’s that the way we use social media exacerbates the issues girls have always wrestled with offline. The content that pulses through channels second by second is a force multiplier, intensifying a fundamentally difficult period in their lives. It’s no wonder they’re drowning.

So much has changed so quickly. Twenty years ago I wasn’t comparing myself to an endless stream of anonymous girls. Analogue life was comparatively tame. I read Judy Blume’s Are You There, God, It’s Me, Margaret, ruminating on the imminent changes – periods, boobs, boys, sex. I was captivated and horrified. Was this what my brain would become? Would this push out the garden birds, rivers, capital cities, the distance of the moon? I didn’t want to stop caring about those things, and somehow, I did. This books that was once banned now seems quaint set against the realities of modern girlhood.

I’m horrified by the idea of public puberty. It’s traumatic enough without doing it on display. Girls pupate and women emerge, going from invisible to observed almost overnight, taking on the full freight of womanhood, of sexualisation, objectification, body ideals, pornification and beauty norms. Perfection in all of these is demanded online. They’re petrocurrency for social media.

Playground dramas were once confined to school. Now there’s no separation. Social media is always on, lubricating, allowing cruelties to slip into home life. Little acts of piercing barbarism invade the evening’s solace. A boy my daughter knows mined my Instagram feed years deep, leaving a little clown face on all our family snaps. H with the self-cut fringe. H with her rat on her shoulder. H with the fairy wings she winces at now. I don’t share their pictures since we brutally learned everything is up for grabs.

With social media we give the world a window into our lives. An inaccurate, constructed one. Tableaus curated for others. Outfits, meals, experiences — Sybilline snippets like Ladrows on a sill, laid out for likes. And so people judge us on the life we want them to think we live. For girls who have grown up with phones in their hands, what else do they know? They’re learning to mainline their self-worth from how well they can stop the mask slipping.

It was hard enough to grapple with beautiful skinny women with good lighting in weekly magazines. Now every young person has an art department under their thumb. They can make themselves into those women. They can pinch and stretch their bodies. Rub away blemishes, minimise “problem areas”. And when everyone else edits, you have to or risk the unfettered harshness anonymous commenters. Their baseline for normal adolescence is riddled with the artefacts and inaccuracies of doctored, perfected images. It must feel excruciating, especially if you’re already swimming around in the primordial teen soup of loneliness, anxiety, depression and body worries.

The strain of maintaining these idealised avatars is revealing itself. Young women suffer from failing to meet their own high standards. Girlguiding UK found a quarter of seven to 10-year-olds pressured by the constant need to be perfect. On social media you compare yourself to perfect strangers ad infinitum. Am I thin enough? Am I pretty enough? Am I sexy enough?

I’m a grown woman and I feel trapped by it, duped by it even. Though I know better, I check my phone as soon as I wake. Who doesn’t? How do we avoid the temptation? Several times I’ve stopped writing this to flick through pictures, doube-tapping hearts on cityscapes, breakfast bowls and neat eyebrows. I struggle with regulating myself. Lots of adults do. And we had enough life offline to know how much better it is. How must it be for those who’ve never known anything else but a life of hearts, emojis, clicks?

Social media offers limitless window in other people’s lives. That’s tempting for girls who are always told they need to measure up. At 3am she can remind herself she’s not a size 10, or that her hair is straight enough, or that she has too much body hair. If you had to design the perfect way to make yourself feel worse, social media comes pretty close. It’s a misery making all-you-can-eat buffet. The self-flagellation stream is always there, always beckoning.

Girls have always wrestled with questions of their adequacy. Life online compounds this self-inspection. No wonder they’re exhausted. It’s hard enough pretending to be all the things you’re trying to be at fourteen, but now there’s no respite. You can’t come home and switch off. You have to keep it up. You have to be on 24/7.

Being a teen girl was hard enough when I did it. Today it’s so much worse. In a world that’s becoming increasingly digitised, I don’t know what the answer is – but it probably doesn’t lie behind a phone screen. I hope for their sake we can figure it out.