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December 1, 2015

Social Media Addict or Activist: Essena was Wrong.

"Girls on Tour," Gary Knight, Flickr

“Social media is not real life.”

So read Essena O’Neill’s Instagram bio after her rampage of deleting, re-captioning and her public break down over it all which went viral.

Her captions pointed out to hundreds of thousands of people just how fake and contrived Instagram is.

And she received a huge response from people who felt just like she did. But she was wrong.

Living a beautiful life is not fake. It’s just fake to pretend you don’t do anything normal. There’s nothing wrong with having a beautiful face and body, but what’s wrong is in believing that you need excessive makeup and 1000 shots and the perfect angle to portray your body in a way that you believe will be perceived as conventionally beautiful.

Essena’s warning was timely, and we need to be challenged about the way we use social media. She was a beautiful girl whose life was ruined, and I feel so much for her but I also know that she allowed herself to become that person: that self-obsessed perfectionist. And it could happen to anyone. We don’t even need social media to do it.

So no, I’m not deleting my Instagram.

I believe that social media is one of the greatest platforms for social accountability, environmental awareness, humanitarian activism and positive inspiration. It isn’t the medium that’s causing people to feel angry, depressed or sad.

The medium itself is infinitely powerful—what is dangerous is our uncontrolled tendencies and dissatisfaction with our own identity.

As a creative person, I find social media both refreshing and depressing.

Studies have shown that we pour copious amounts of time into Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Yesterday I heard a speaker claim that these days women between 14 and 25 spend five hours a week taking selfies.

Half of me questions the whole thing as well, and asks what would change if we spent those five hours a week with our families? Or working in our community? Or engaging in meaningful conversations about real issues? But this is our world now.

We can engage with it positively, or we can abandon it and lose the potential positive impact that we could have had.

We need to rethink the way we use social media, because if the people who are most passionate about living real, gritty, challenging and inspirational lives leave it, it’s usefulness for change will be limited.

A woman once told me that on her train travel through the Swiss alps a crowd of people were pushing against the train window to take a photo of the natural drama outside. One girl, pushed forward by the crowd, held her phone up and began taking selfies, dimly showcasing the Alps in the background.

Essena stated that she was constantly doing things so that she could take photos of them. And that’s the problem, right there. Doing things so that we can receive attention is where social media stops being real.

So let’s celebrate the people sharing their lives of climbing rocks, writing books, teaching yoga, running online charities, breaking educational boundaries—changing the world.

And let’s celebrate the ones who don’t upload photos of it, without vilifying the ones who do—because they’re creating a better future too.

What’s really important is balancing our need for affirmation with our real passions, and breaking away from the pressure of performance.

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Relephant read:

Essena O’Neill: A Call To Use Social Media Responsibly.

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Author: Charlotte O’Neill

Editor: Khara-Jade Warren

Image: Gary Knight/ Flickr

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Charlotte O'Neill