By Yayonah Bangura| Published Dec. 9, 2015
At the age of 12, instead of playing outdoors with friends and experiencing what would be considered a normal preteen life, Australian native Essena O’Neill was googling model body measurements and comparing them to her own.
Stalking famous celebrities and models online, she hoped to one day be like them and convinced herself that only an internet following would bring her happiness and popularity.
At 16 she became a model and successfully pursued that life until 18, when she suddenly deleted her social networks and gave up her career because she was unhappy with herself and the things she had done to maintain her image.
In the day and age of social media, it’s so easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of likes, comments, and favorites— where users tend to hand us rose-colored glasses to view the best parts of their online lives. But as some know, not everything seen on the internet is real— which was the message O’Neill was trying to push out.
She changed the captions of her photos on Instagram, admitting to her followers how she starved herself to keep her physique, was paid to promote products she never used and spent days with strangers capturing the perfect “effortless” and “candid” photos to post online.
On the day O’Neill quit modeling she posted a video on her YouTube channel explaining her decision.
“I let myself be defined by numbers,” said O’Neill. “I spent ages 12 to 16 wishing I was this perfect person online. And then I spent 16 to 18 proving my life on social media, perfecting myself enough to be that person.”
In tears, she revealed that her only satisfaction came from the thousands of likes and comments she would get on her photos, and even then it wasn’t enough for her. With 600,000 Instagram followers and 300,000 YouTube subscribers, she craved more— more likes, more follows, more acceptance.
She abandoned hobbies and passions she had as a child to sign to an Australian modeling agency and pursue the career she thought she wanted.
Now, O’Neill has become an advocate for better living offline.
Taking a stand with her campaign “Let’s Be Game Changers,” she encourages her followers to go out and enjoy real life instead of obsessing over social media. She promotes environmental causes, proper mental, physical and spiritual health, online integrity and honest connections with others.
While some understand what O’Neill is fighting for and support her actions, others have said that she over-reacted and allowed social media to take over her life on her own accord.
But despite the fact that the lives of other social media users don’t all mimic O’Neill’s to the T, with a closer look, one may find several similarities.
On the internet, users curate their lives and only show the world what they want people to see. It’s simple to look at someone’s Facebook statuses and Instagram pictures and think that you know their lives through those networks.
Active social media users can probably attest to at least one time where they’ve seen someone’s online profile and thought, “Wow, they look so happy, their life must be perfect.”
There are people who have unknowingly let themselves become attached to likes and followers on social media.
I have friends who will delete pictures they’ve posted on Instagram if they don’t receive the amount of likes they desire, or will stop wearing their hair a certain way if they post a photo and very few people like or comment on the change.
There are people, including myself at one point, who have deleted certain social networks because they felt like they couldn’t keep up with the images and lifestyles they saw being portrayed and idolized.
It’s of no fault to the people portraying said lifestyles, but one can’t help but wonder why some of us secretly feel the need to uphold an unrealistic standard of a perfect, completely happy life.
It doesn’t seem like much now, but it becomes an issue when you realize that people are allowing other’s opinions of them online to dictate their self-esteem.
O’Neill’s mindset might not be too far off , and it seems even more logical considering how impressionable young teens are. Th is is what is deemed as a factor in their everyday lives, this is what shapes them.
In October of this year, CNN did a social media study on 200 eighth graders across America titled ‘#Being13: Inside the Secret World of Teens,’ where the teens gave child development experts the permission to have their social media account feeds studied.
The study revealed that the more teens viewed social media, the more distressed they became and those who used social media the most admitted to checking their feeds over 100 times a day.
“I definitely feel pressure to look perfect on Instagram,” said one teen participant. “What goes through my mind as I’m posting a picture about myself is, ‘What will people think of this? Are they going to think I’m ugly, are they going to think I’m pretty? I’m thinking all these things and I’m comparing myself to others.”
Understanding the impact that social media has on its users, especially the young, who are more susceptible to influence, is the first step. O’Neill was only 12 years old when she made the decision to alter her entire life because of what she saw online.
It’s important that we teach growing teens about social media and how to successfully separate themselves from the online world when necessary.