06/11/2015 06:02 GMT | Updated 04/11/2016 05:12 GMT

It's Time to Get Real

I knew social media was a thing. I just didn't realise how much of a thing.

Not for me - I have, like, four Facebook friends (after the latest swathe of baby photo-induced deletions) and my Instagram game is, well, I try - but this isn't about me.

It won't have escaped your notice that the latest casualty of teen social media obsession has, fairly ironically, gone viral. In a watery outburst (and her 'last ever' YouTube video) ex-social media butterfly Essena O'Neill condemns the industry that has grown up around people like her. People no more equipped for the commercial pressures of fame than Derek down the road, or your mum.

O'Neill slams the editing and fakery (she re-captioned photos on her Instagram feed to be more 'truthful') and calls on the rest of us to beware the glittering goal of Internet stardom.

But what her tearful exit really reveals is the extent to which social media idols have eclipsed more traditional role models: teens now trust female YouTube stars (like Zoella, Jenna Marbles and Bethany Mota) more than Disney-manufactured screen queens like Miley Cyrus. According to USC professor Jeetendr Sehdev:

Teens perceive YouTube stars generally to be 90% more genuine, 17 times more engaging and 11 times more extraordinary than mainstream celebrities.

In other words, more real. And teens crave real. They are attuned to the Hollywood machine and suspicious of anything remotely edited. The rise of 'ugly selfies' points not only to a growing cynicism around overly stylised imagery but a demand for authenticity.

Yet it is the very accessibility of this new influx of social media stars that burdens young girls (and boys, too) with the destabilising paradox: 'that could be me, but it isn't'.

In fact, we have always delighted in putting real people in the circus ring. From Coney Island freak shows to the bawdy behemoth that is Big Brother, reality entertainment arguably presaged our insatiable appetite for 'accessible' heroes.

Thrust into the high seas of celebrity with barely a paddle, they have no choice but to define themselves by their audience. Their identity is cultivated, curated and reflected back into a black mirror: 'Who is the fairest of them all?'

This can only end in tears. As reported in Psychology Today, a study by the University of Gothenburg found that as Facebook interaction increases, self esteem decreases - and it doesn't take an academic to see that social media as a whole plays to our worst narcissistic tendencies.

O'Neill's experience reflects an extreme consequence of what most of us do every day when we edit ourselves for others' approval. Can a two-dimensional digital representation ever be authentic?

A new breed of apps (like Beme, where users communicate by placing their phones on their hearts) attempt to engineer a kind of raw 'realness'. But is real just, well, really boring? Writing for Wired, Kyle Vanhemert contends:

The most popular social-media apps always will be those that allow the greatest number of people to feel like they live the most interesting lives.

And this is where ONeill's story comes full circle. Her attempts to portray an interesting, glamorous, worthwhile life came at the expense of living (in her view) just that.

Since her digital departure, Instagrammers have been clamouring to make it clear that they are not fake. But can we ever really know what's real anymore?

Do we need to?