WORDS: JESSICAVANDER LEAHY
Come on. We've all done it. Taken a dozen selfies, edited to find the right one, added a little filter and uploaded it to social media without any mention of all our effort, but one Australian teenager is making us wonder what real price we are paying to alter our imperfect realities.
To her hundreds of thousands of followers internet famous Essena O'Neill appeared to have it all, but offline the 19-year-old had a secret.
The Australian teenager was often seen looking uber glam in her bikini beach shots and perfectly primped selfies which were festooned with likes and comments by her half-a-million strong legion of Instagram fans, but the social media super star recently came clean to reveal a sad reality behind those images.
Earlier this week Essena deleted over 2,000 photos on her Instagram that, as she puts it on a recent post, "served no real purpose other than self-promotion."
O'Neill quit everything — Tumblr, and Snapchat, where she had hundreds of thousands of followers — and all but deactivated her YouTube and Instagram account, which she renamed "Social Media Is Not Real Life". She used her next post to admit she was "addicted to social approval" and "terrified" no one would value her for her reality so she used "false photos with short shots of reality."
“Now marks the day I quit all social media and focus on real life projects," wrote the Queensland teenager.
“Social media, especially how I used it, isn’t real ... It’s contrived images and edited clips ranked against each other. It’s a system based on social approval, likes, validation in views, success in followers. It’s perfectly orchestrated self absorbed judgement.”
O'Neill then went back over dozens of previous posts rewrote some very frank captions to tell the real stories behind some of the images she'd put up over her three-year "Insta-career."
After her eye-opening posts went viral Essena opened up with tearful thank you via video.
"I don't ever think I've been happier than this moment," began a makeup-free Essena in her raw confessional style video.
"I was scared that no one wants to hear the truth, that everyone's going to think I'm an attention-seeker, that I'm just complaining. But this message that likes, followers, views — that we're more than a number — it's going global."
She added in a caption for the video, "I am just so grateful to think of how many young men and women might see this movement and stop limiting themselves to artificial ideas of happiness online."
So yes it's confusing; she's used social media to call out social media then thanked her fans via social media for all the support they have given her about her stance on social media but... Essena's revelations have made world headlines. It seems she has gained more fans for her real life honesty because many, especially women and young girls, relate to the pressure to keep up appearances when it comes to social media.
But, as with any story that lives on the internet, there is a backlash brewing.
Essena, who admits she was often paid up to $2000 by advertisers to endorse products, is being told to donate any money she made to mental health groups.
However Essena said in her recent post, "nothing is wrong with accepting brand deals. I just think it should be known" - as in she regrets not pointing out to her followers when she was being paid for a post - a hindsight revelation that has many internet pundits saying, 'duh'.
Another criticism some are throwing around is Essena is using her alternate stance to cash in on a body positive and vegan movement, to make even more money. On her social media promoted website, letsbegamechagers.com, the teen writes of releasing future projects and ebooks that she will accept donations for.
"I'm not a purist. I need money to cover the basics. If you get something from what I'm doing, pay what it's worth to you," she writes on the 'Support me' part of her site.
But even if she's going cash in on being positive Essena's refreshing revelations have done something positive.
They have highlighted the big, gapping hole in the psyche of teenage girls and boys who are so influenced by the false realities on social media that it can extensively affect their everyday lives and how they view their peers and most importantly, themselves.
Most members of GEN Z can't fathom life without Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and Twitter but a recent US study found frequent social media use may indeed take a toll on a young person's psychological well-being.
Research from the Ottawa Public Health found teens who use social media sites for two hours or more per day are drastically more likely to suffer from poor mental health, psychological distress and suicidal thoughts.
Essena's candid account of her social media experience seem to have resonated with so many others because nowadays feeling pressured by another's online lifestyle IS a common experience. #FOMO is a real thing y'all.
It's interesting to see how this Queensland teen has sparked a global conversation that centres around the idea that perhaps we do need to educate people, especially teenagers, to recognise that a love-filled life offline is far more rewarding than a like-filled one online.
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