Instagram Star Sends Important Message To Teens: 'Social Media Is Not Real Life'

by Valerie Williams
Originally Published: 
Image via Instagram

An 18-year-old Instagram celebrity is making waves by quitting all forms of social media, despite huge followings across several platforms. She says she’s “miserable” and lonely, having allowed herself to be consumed by an addiction to approval from internet strangers. Now, she’s editing captions on her Instagram photos in a bid to share her truth and the wisdom she’s replacing them with will blow you away.

Australian teen Essena O’Neill began posting on social media at age 15. Three years later, she’s amassed followings of 500,000+ on Instagram and 250,000+ on YouTube. By her own admission, she quickly became unhealthily obsessed with the feelings of validation she got from all those “likes” and comments. O’Neill says, “I fell in love with this idea that I could be of value to other people. Let’s call this my snowballing addiction to be liked by others. I spent endless hours everyday on social media.” Sound familiar? Although on a smaller scale, this is probably the way many teens feel about social media.

In her new blog Let’s Be Game Changers, O’Neill seeks to expose the secrets behind the #instafamous culture of social media stars and in doing so, gives us a hint of what other kids her age might be thinking. In explaining her self-imposed disappearance from Instagram, YouTube, Tumblr and Snapchat, O’Neill says “I found myself drowning in the illusion. Social media isn’t real. It’s purely contrived mages and edited clips ranked against each other. It’s a system based on social approval, likes and dislikes, validation in views, success in followers… it’s perfectly orchestrated judgement. And it consumed me.”

Wow. That’s an incredible understanding for someone her age. She’s sadly right that a large part of social media is judgement, and for a teen, that can quickly become damaging, both emotionally and psychologically. Did her post get more “likes” than mine? Does she look thinner than I do? Why does she get so many comments and I only get a few? I can only imagine what kind of havoc this could wreak on a teenager.

Here are some of O’Neill’s posts with their newly edited captions. Among other things, she admits to starving herself to look thinner for a picture and sometimes, posing for over 100 shots in a bid for perfection, only to put the photo through several editing apps before sharing it. This is a unique look at the curated perfection of social media, through the eyes of a teenager:

I’m in awe of O’Neill’s self-awareness and commitment to telling the truth about these photos. Her revelations could make a huge impact on teens convinced that this “contrived perfection” is in any way the real thing. I’m a grown adult, a mother and wife, and even I’ve fallen victim at times to jealousy on social media. I didn’t know until recently of the myriad apps and photo-editing software programs that some women use to achieve “selfie perfection” and thought I must be incredibly unattractive, since I in no way measured up. That said, I would call myself a reasonably confident and intelligent woman. If I had moments of questioning my own worth and feeling envious of other women because of their eerily flawless (and fake) appearance, can you imagine how a young girl could feel seeing photos of a fellow teen looking this way?

We should be applauding O’Neill for her candid admissions about her previous life as a social media “celebrity” because it can serve as a powerful tool in helping our own kids see the online world for what it is. This is all new territory for us as parents since most of us never navigated this sort of thing growing up and need all the assistance we can get. I hope O’Neill is able to find herself outside of her social media identity and that she continues to speak out on this very important issue facing teens today.

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