AUSTRALIA — Hundreds of likes on an Instagram picture of a perfectly posed, blond woman in a bikini might lead some to believe that she is confident and has a perfect life. But behind the scenes, Essena O’Neill says, she felt like a lost and lonely teenager.
That’s what the social media personality wanted her followers and the world of social media to know: What you see on social media isn’t always true to life.
The Australian-born model, who has made a career of posting blissful photos of herself in the perfect outfit with the perfect backdrop, surprised her followers when she threatened to deactivate her Instagram account earlier this week.
O’Neill created buzz online after she deleted many of her Instagrams and changed some of her captions to describe how she really felt when the photo was being taken. She edited her posts to reiterate her message: “Social media is an illusion.”
O’Neill later deleted her Instagram, YouTube and Facebook pages from the Internet. The accounts were no longer visible as of Wednesday.
Before O’Neill deactivated, her social media friends Nina and Randa Nelson published a YouTube video alleging she was doing this as a stunt to get more followers.
“I think that the person that is fake here is Essena,” said Nina Nelson.
Social media personalities like O’Neill get paid to wear outfits and to plug and promote products. They are given talking points and instructions on when to post, said O’Neill in her YouTube video.
O’Neill, who recently turned 19, said she wished someone had told her that she was worth more than just an Instagram photo.
Editing her Instagram posts was O’Neill’s “wake-up call” to everyone who follows her, she said. “It’s not real life,” she said in a video on her website.
Since she was 12, O’Neill has accumulated over half a million followers across multiple social media platforms. The motivation to become a social media phenom came when she was a young teen. O’Neill said she felt unworthy and unpopular by society’s standards unless she was validated with lots of likes and views. She said she would follow famous Facebook users who she thought had it all because they had so many likes and followers.
“I dreamed of being one. I studied them, I envied them, I put in a lot of effort to be one of them,” she wrote on her website.
O’Neill’s epiphany came when she achieved great numbers of followers but realized it left her even more lonely. She began to need “more followers, more viewers” to feel good.
O’Neill was surrounded by other wealthy, famous and important social media personalities, but she said in her YouTube video that some of them told her that they were just as sad as she was.
In a different YouTube video, O’Neill struggled to speak through tears as she thanked her followers and the media for the support and attention she has been getting for speaking out about social media. She wants fans to know that posts are “edited and contrived to get more views,” which puts pressure on young girls to look perfect and to chase an unrealistic version of the ideal body.
“I no longer want to spend hours and hours of my time scrolling, viewing and comparing myself to others,” she said. “I want to do something, anything, something radical, something a little different. I want to use my imagination, my individual mind, my unique take on this world.”
O’Neill has since shifted her focus from social media to promoting her personal website. O’Neill said that she had “no idea” how she would make money going forward and asked for support from those visiting her site.