Instagram star Essena O'Neill quits social media and gives teens a lot to think about

Instagram star Essena O'Neill quits social media and gives teens a lot to think about

Instagram is hugely popular among tweens and teens and for many young users, it is their first foray into social media. I know that's certainly true of my 13-year-old's experience.

While there are some pitfalls to Instagram, aka Insta or IG, which you can read about here, there are also a lot of kids who use it without any obvious issues. Many of them follow individuals who have become stars on the platform, people like Essena O'Neill.

O'Neill is an 18-year-old Australian who amassed a following of more than half a million followers on Instagram, and tens of thousands more on YouTube, Snapchat, and other platforms.

And this week, she quit social media. She deleted thousands of photos on Instagram, she says and as confirmed by this report. She renamed her account to "Social Media Is Not Real Life" and altered the captions of the photos she left to say what was really going on in them.

She explains that she took more than 100 shots to get just the right one, that the one shot she did get was edited on several apps, that she was paid by companies to promote their products, that she was having a really bad day in a photo but you can't tell from her luminous smile, that she would have yelled at her little sister for doing what she did to get the right photo.

There's a lot parents can take away from this. O'Neill's move and disclosures offer a veritable gold mine of teachable moments.

I've been surprised at the socially-savvy parents I've heard say they're surprised at just how manufactured Instagram is, and the extent to which it is an ad forum, even though that's often not disclosed at all.

The most important take away: Even when your kids aren't doing anything bad or wrong on social media, you still need to consider the messages they are taking away, the pressure it can make them feel, and/or the bar it sets in their mind of what life should be when in fact, the photos they see are not reality at all.

It is Media Literacy Week and O'Neill offers a lot of great examples of how media is manipulated to make people want to buy things, want a certain life style, to think things are effortless when in fact they are a ton of work, to make a setting/person/product look natural when the reality is anything but.

O'Neill created a new website,, and in a video on the site she says she's thrilled with the reaction to her decision and her new site, explaining, "It doesn't matter what you look like. It matters what you're saying and doing and creating. . . . That's when I think you're living."

"I'm the girl who had it all and I want to tell you that having it all on social media means absolutely nothing to your real life," she says in the video. "Everything I was doing was edited and contrived and to get more views ... Everything I did was for views, for likes, for followers."

"I've stopped giving into social expectations and social media and stopped caring about so many things, like my appearance and social status and taking hot or cool Instagram-worthy photos. All that stuff doesn't matter. This stuff matters - thinking how you want to change the world and make it a better place, that's what matters," she goes on to say.

"Remove yourself from the box. Then you'll be able to think out of it." - Essena O'Neill

Can I get an Amen?

But it gets even better. She goes on to challenge her readers to get rid of the apps on their phone and give up social media for a week.

She writes, "So my first little challenge for you is to go social media free for one week. Use your phone for texting friends ONLY. No Instagram, Tumblr, YouTube or Facebook or twitter or anything else where you view other people online. One week. Just one week. Post a caption or photo saying it's a personal experiment. THEN DELETE ALL THE APPS OFF YOUR PHONE. I want you to actually do this and see what happens. My whole life changed when I did. I finally woke up. I saw more, I listened more, I had more time, I found myself becoming more and more creative, less stressed, happier and with this new sense of power.... but most of all I just FELT MORE. I want you to feel this too. It's so beautiful. It's real."

Isn't that what we want for our kids? To feel happier, less stressed, empowered, connected?

She looks so incredibly happy. She sounds like a girl who has had the weight of the world lifted off her shoulders. She liberated herself, and she clearly wants to liberate others, too.

Now, I know it's not likely that many kids will have a light bulb moment and chuck their phones, but this is worth showing them, watching with them and talking about with them. Our kids are teens, not full-grown adults, and they need help and guidance (even if they wouldn't ever dare admit it).

How to incorporate social media into our lives in a way that maximizes the good and minimizes the bad is a great challenge for all of us, at any age. Seeking that elusive but oh so important balance requires boundaries and limits, and O'Neill is a great example of someone setting both.

(There's some language in the video and on the site but it's probably not new to your teen and still worth watching/reading.)

You May Also Like: Talking with kids about what is and isn't real on social media

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