The Dark Side of Social Media

Sophia Wang, Staff Writer

Essena O’ Neill, the blue-eyed, blonde-haired young model who seemed to have it all, shocked the online world when she announced her decision to quit social media in an emotional video.

With half a million followers, O’ Neill had especially made it big-time on the image-sharing platform, Instagram. A quick scroll through her feed showcased hundreds of colorful photos, witty captions, and comments of adoration from her followers. However, smiles and sunsets weren’t the only messages hidden in the images that O’ Neill posted. When she told the world of her departure from social media, O’ Neill also revealed the not so flawless facts behind each photo.

“Companies know the power of social media, and they are exploiting it,” said O’ Neill in her video. Paid advertising. Product promotions. Posing. Today’s increasing social media presence makes it possible for a single sponsored photo to bring in thousands of dollars of potential revenue for companies. The money that O’ Neill was paid, in exchange for her endorsements, constituted her income, rent, and the lavish lifestyle atypical of a nineteen-year-old.

In addition to the monetary aspects of social media, O’ Neill claimed to “quit social media for [her] twelve-year-old self.” She reminisced about the comparisons she drew from magazine models to her own twelve-year-old self, mimicking a pinch of her thighs. It is difficult to ignore the tan, lean limbs and flat stomach that makes an appearance on her photo feed. When 91.8 million Instagram users are females under the age of thirty-two, it’s also difficult to ignore her warnings about the deception of media and the elaborate editing and staging of photos that may take place. “I was obsessed with how I looked,” O’ Neill admitted of her public career.

Interestingly, O’ Neill’s lash-out against social media has generated significant backlash of its own. The general public questions everything from the irony of her using social media to protest social media, to asking supporters to donate money for her rent. Skeptics who have previously interacted with O’ Neill contradict her side of the story through their own videos. And of course, invitations to high-profile talk shows and rumors about an impending book deal have only added fuel to the fire. However, despite this controversy, O’ Neill’s public statement has stirred up an important, long-going discussion.

O’ Neill is not the sole figure who has spoken out against false media portrayals in the past. With nearly 7 million views of her TED talk, titled “Looks aren’t everything,” model Cameron Russell stated a similar stance on the issue nearly three years prior.

After ten years of professional runway modeling, Russell said, “[Those] pictures were not pictures of me. They [were] constructions by a group of professionals.” Her words ought to be common sense; after all, her modeling photos were featured in magazines and editorials printed for profit. However, the fact that 80% of women say that similar photos used in fashion magazines and advertising makes them feel insecure is indisputable. When the photos used in advertisements are largely “constructed” and “exploited,” it is significant that a large majority of women feel inadequate about themselves as a direct result of these portrayals.

This discussion about the motives behind images in media lends itself to larger, uncharted questions about the direction that society is headed. O’ Neill was only one of countless Instagram idols, and Russell just a single model out of many. Yet the discussion that has already been generated by their words suggests that people are interested in what they have to say.

High school senior Annie Wang commented, “I heard about Essena O’Neill’s video at the lunch table. I was honestly surprised by what she said about the side of social media that people don’t really realize is there, so now I think more about the pictures that people post.” There does exist a demand for increased conversation and reflection. People do acknowledge the impact of social media.

The pursuit of perfection results in consequences that extend far beyond wardrobe choices and products on the bathroom-counter. Abstract conceptions of beauty have inspired current styling trends, birthed multi-billion dollar industries, and even constructed a façade of societal expectations that pressures the masses to continuously revise their lives. Surrounded by unquestioned media influences, individuals feel the need to conform to a constructed idea.

In O’ Neill’s own words, “When you let yourself be defined by numbers, you let yourself be defined by something that is not pure, that is not real.” We are real, our imperfections are real, and the currently inflated standards of value that exist as a result of flawed media only promote the undeserved feelings of inadequacy that adults, adolescents, and children who are just as insecure as O’ Neill was at age twelve, experience.