Essena O’Neill, the 19 year old originating from Australia, seemed to ‘have it all’ in the world of social media. With over half a million Instagram followers, a thriving YouTube channel, and a modelling contract, it wouldn’t be too much of an assumption to say that for a lot of teenage girls she encapsulated that ever-elusive concept of the ultimate ‘It Girl’.
I can’t say I’d heard of her before this fortnight, but I’m pretty sure most people reading this now will have. She has been trending, ironically enough, on social media sites and making news headlines for her ‘radical’ decision to quit it all. She took down 20,000 instagram photos, deleted her YouTube videos and has apparently withdrawn her modelling contract.
Why? Because social media is fake. In a 17 minute long video originally released on her new website, ‘Let’s Be Game Changers’, she dedicated her decision to her ‘12 year old self’. Despite of her apparent success, she explained how unhappy the ‘lie’ of social media had made her, how each ‘candid’ shot was one of 300 attempts, how the clothes were rarely hers, and how advertisement contracts and product placement deals amongst social media stars are common and misleading. Alongside her edited Instagram captions (all now deleted) telling the ‘truth behind the image’ her story spread quickly.
Somewhat unsurprisingly, following the incredible amount of traffic her story received, she has already faced criticism. Girl deletes social media, re-edits captions, releases a teary video, and makes headlines. In light of recent headlines especially, it all now seems very shallow and superficial. If she’d really wanted to fall off the grid, why not just delete it all and go quietly? Living a life fuelled by white lies may not have been morally fulfilling, but it isn’t exactly taking on 14 hours shifts to pay the bills. Surely crying over your social media fame is the ultimate first world problem?
Surely crying over your social media fame is the ultimate first world problem?
Although I appreciate the critics’ arguments, I also feel that Essena has good, if somewhat idealistic and insular, intentions at heart; and she also has a point. In some respects, I think it’s possible to argue that social media is becoming a major first world problem. Although the phrase is often used with a somewhat uncomfortable irony, to take the mick out of those bemoaning the ‘tougher aspects’ of living comfortably. When it comes to social media however, while it may be a ‘First World Problem’- it’s still a problem. Granted, not the most pressing issue facing humanity, but all difficulties are relative, and social media is one that is nonetheless impacting an entire generation of young people.
As Debroah Orr points out, young people’s insecurities and constant comparision with peers has always been an issue, and is across the planet, nevermind the ‘First World’. But daily social media usage has brought this comparison to a new level. No longer are teenagers competing with clothes, make-up and posturing wealth; they’re also now having to live up to a continuous update of their friends and idols incredible ‘lives’, of impossible goals of filters and photoshop, of candid sounding captions that are in reality carefully constructed.
No one can live up to that in real life, and in many ways we already know that it’s all just an edited highlight reel. Essena’s explaination that her social media ‘served no real purpose other than self promotion’ is not exactly radical news. ‘This may be the case for her’, you might be thinking, ‘but I never post attention-seeking selfies’. The underlying truth however is that we use social media to self-promote often without realizing we’re doing it. Uploading photos of that ‘mad night in Freshers’ week’ is assuring everyone you’re making the most of student life; posting that sassy, self-deprecating status is subconsciously reminding everyone of your hilarity and modesty. No one posts honestly about the days that are dull and exhausting, about the evenings they spend alone and feeling down. If they do, they’re a lot braver than I am.
We know social media is a platform on which to judge others, and we’re aware of ourselves being judged, but that doesn’t stop us from falling prey to the debilitating effects of constant comparison nonetheless. The links between social media and an increased sense of anxiety and lack of self-worth are again, not exactly news, but something I think we forget anyway. Lorne Jaffe’s article on ‘5 Reasons Why Facebook Can Be Dangerous for People With Depression’ strikes all too close to home, and you don’t have to suffering with a diagnosable illness to recognize the feeling of coming away from social media feeling worse than you did before.
This is not condemning social media and our instant interconnectivity entirely, but this latest debacle is serving as a reminder. Social media is a platform on which to present what we want others to see; ultimately, we want to look good and be liked, and though this is a positive thing, it is also only one side of any real life experience. Essena might have her critics, but for a naïve 19 year old, she’s doing the best she can to make a difference. Regardless of your opinion of how she may have gone about it, her message is a valid and important one.