Why we need to listen to Essena O’Neill

“Social media is not real life” is the first thing you’ll read when you check out Essena O’Neill’s Instagram account. Her display picture (or is it called an icon?) shows someone with a TV set for a head that reads “We are a brain-washed generation.” Her last post was days ago and her follower count is currently 868k. Now, who the fuck is she?

Essena O’Neill is what our generation calls an “online celebrity,” and a look at her Instagram photos, or what’s left of them at least (she legit took the the time to delete over 2,000 photos and edit the captions on the ones left), and her YouTube videos gives the impression that she is living the life. She’s built a media empire that has exposed her to modeling agencies and brands willing to pay $$$ for her to wear their clothing. Essena just turned 19.

In her final YouTube video, Essena talks about how her killer addiction to social media started, and why it consumed her so much. It was her 12 year-old self that was seeking love and attention. She was a kid at heart who really just wanted to feel like she was valued. She talks about how she felt like she didn’t compare to all these gorgeous online celebrities because they were so thin and pretty, and they were loved, so why wasn’t she?

“A 15 year old girl that calorie restricts and excessively exercises is not goals.” Amen, Essena.

Essena also discussed how, even though she had “everything,” she was still miserable and suffering from depression and anxiety. She further explained how it’s not just her feeling this way and gave Cara Delevingne as an example.

In the video, which she dedicates to her 12 year-old self, Essena made it clear that she is not against using social media, but she is against living through it and for it. She encourages her viewers to switch off their phones and leave their houses, walk their dogs, go to an animal shelter, head to the park or beach, or simply sit at a cafe and strike up a conversation with someone.

Having struggled with self-image, depression, and anxiety for a large portion of my life, I know and understand where Essena is coming from.

I might not have hundreds of thousands of followers on Instagram, but I know what it’s like to closely monitor my follower count. I know what it’s like to feel annoyed at something that is as petty as someone hitting the unfollow button. I know the feeling of frustration that shits on your day because that one photo didn’t get that many likes.

It’s stupid, it’s sad, it’s scary, and it’s fucking exhausting.

Essena described social media as a business, and she’s 100% right. I have experience in social media marketing, and I’ve seen, and actually been involved in, people like Essena being targeted by all types of brands. Food and beverage, clothing, etc.. You name it, they’ll target online celebrities.

One method of social media marketing is sending out gifts to people like Essena who simply know they are supposed to snap a photo and tag your brand. It is, after all, their job. If your brand isn’t the type to send gifts (i.e. you’re a club, not a store), online celebrities will receive invites to your high-end parties instead. It’s marketing 101.

But at what cost?

When I was a kid, my favorite thing to do was to play outside. Sure, I still watched TV and played video games, but nothing was as fun as riding my bike or getting my ass beat playing Pokémon cards. I’d go online sometimes, but it never interested me enough to spend all my time in front of a screen. It’s probably because the internet wasn’t as big as it is now and social media was nonexistent (I’m lucky that way), and it also had plenty to do with my dad being hella strict (“Get off the computer and do your homework!”).

Kids nowadays, however, they’re not so lucky. “There’s no question kids are missing out on very critical social skills,” says Dr. Catherine Steiner-Adair, a clinical psychologist and author of The Big Disconnect. “In a way, texting and online communicating—it’s not like it creates a nonverbal learning disability, but it puts everybody in a nonverbal disabled context, where body language, facial expression, and even the smallest kinds of vocal reactions are rendered invisible.” I can barely have a conversation with my younger cousins without them glancing at their screens every two minutes (I can’t be that boring). Very recently, my 14 year-old cousin asked for a selfie stick for her birthday. Suffice it to say I was fucking done when I heard her say that, because at that age, I was asking for toys and a bike.

What about body image? Growing up, I was subject to distorted ideas of beauty and perfection. On TV I’d see beautiful actresses and in magazines, the skinny models with the perky tits and the flat bellies. Now you can add social media to the list, and literally everyday I have to see a woman who is “perfect” and I wonder why I don’t look like her. Even though I know it isn’t real, I just can’t help but feeling like absolute shit.

An article written by Richard M. Perloff, a scholar of persuasion and political communication perceptions and effects, states that “research, primarily conducted in the U.S., UK, and Australia, has obtained considerable evidence for media effects on thinness ideals and body dissatisfaction.” Another excerpt reads, “Many cross-sectional and longitudinal surveys have found that media exposure predicts body dissatisfaction, thin body ideals, and eating disorder symptomatology among preadolescent girls and young women.”

Speaking of eating disorders, the NHS has stated that the number of teens being admitted to hospitals due to eating disorders has almost doubled in a couple of years (and that’s just in the UK). Doesn’t that piss you off? And guess who’s to blame. That’s right! Social media! The Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCP) says “the images and apps available online placed huge pressure on young people.” Spokeswoman Dr Carolyn Nahman said, “Literally with one click of a button very vulnerable young people are able to access 10,000 images of ‘perfect looking’ people which places them under a lot of pressure.”

A position statement by the RCP on media being a main contributor to eating disorders reads: “An increasing body of research now indicates that the media has a role in both providing a social context for the development and maintenance of eating disorders. This is achieved by propagating unobtainable body ideals and the acceptability of dieting leading to lowered mood, body dissatisfaction and eating disorder symptoms.” It goes on to explain the areas of influence, ranging from the portrayal of eating disorders as mild disorders to visuals and lack of diversity in size, ethnicity, age, and shape.

I was lucky enough to grow up without social media, and I’m lucky enough now to know that Photoshop is the main reason I don’t look like a beauty queen. Kids don’t know this. They don’t understand, and when you try to make them understand, they just don’t get it. You can’t blame them for it either, because it’s not their fault their young minds are being warped and twisted by social media, and it’s not like self-image is an easy battle to face.

What exacerbates the issue is that social media is mostly the only way kids communicate in today’s world. “They can make decisions not to look at magazines and TV, but social media networks are the primary way they communicate and their main channel to the outside world,” said MP Caroline Nokes who is part of a campaign called Be Real: Body Confidence For Everyone. “But they are seeing the world through a filter, and that’s not healthy.”

Another negative effect of social media is the destruction of our social skills. One study conducted for online casino Yazino found that one in four people spend more time socializing online than in person. Yazino founder Hussein Chahine explained by saying, “People increasingly prefer quick and frequent engagement with instant updates on news than a prolonged chat and are also finding new ways to catch up with friends from the comfort of their sofa.” Really? This is what we’ve become?

One University of South Florida graduate named Mark Clennon summed it up perfectly: “People tend to want to show others that they are having fun than actually having fun themselves. There’s a greater desire to share with other people you barely know, than actually hanging out with friends and making memories.”

Social media can be fun and it can be used for good. I’m all with it. I’m not saying toss your phone and fall off the grid forever. Fall off the online grid for a while every now and then instead. Give your lungs some fresh air. Go out and actually see your best friend, even if that best friend is in an animal shelter. Look away from the screen and take a walk. Chill at the beach or read a book at the park if you can. Grab a cup of coffee alone, go to a concert. Do something.

Just don’t do it online.

That is exactly what Essena O’Neill is saying, and we should be saying it with her.

She found the courage to take charge of her own life. She chose to stand up for herself and for you and I. She refused to brand herself, because she’d rather be a human being instead.

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