A hand holds a smartphone attached to a selfie stick.

Image: Shutterstock

19-year-old Instagram star Essena O’Neill, widely known for her photographs and selfies, has decided to quit posting on social media after realizing how “self-absorbed” her practice was. O’Neill had half a million followers on Instagram, 200,000 on YouTube, and 60,000 on Snapchat. She has renamed her Instagram account “Social Media Is Not Real Life.”

O’Neill has now written new captions for her photographs, exposing the “truth” behind them. “NOT REAL LIFE – took over 100 in similar poses trying to make my stomach look good. Would have hardly eaten that day. Would have yelled at my little sister to keep taking them until I was somewhat proud of this,” she wrote on a selfie.

She has also deleted more than 2,000 pictures from her accounts. Now, O’Neill is working towards creating a website that focuses on body positivity and healthy self-esteem. The content will be free, intended to help other people rather than earn views or make money. “Social media, especially how I used it, isn’t real…It’s a system based on social approval, likes, validation in views, success in followers. It’s perfectly orchestrated self absorbed judgement [sic]. I was consumed by it,” O’Neill says.

O’Neill’s new approach to social media exposes some of its darker qualities. Many people use social media to create connections with others, but it also encourages people to find self-worth through the reactions of others. “I was both addicted to social approval and terrified no one would value me for myself,” she says.

Some people are critical of O’Neill’s announcements. A Facebook user commented on the ABC Australia story, writing that “this is simply smart marketing. She’s reversing her conventional image and in the process, gaining even more media exposure. She’s clever—this will only improve her career in a shift towards ‘body positive’ advocacy.”

Be that as it may, O’Neill’s current pledge feels genuine. Exposing how much work and self-doubt went into each of her shots illuminates the struggle behind social media. Though we have always sought approval from others, having constant access to it can be highly damaging. Even if O’Neill’s ulterior motive is to bolster her own career, the points she makes remain valid and important.