The Pressure to Be Social
Essena O’Neill gained international attention on November 2015 when she announced on Youtube and Instagram that she was quitting social media. An “Instagram Star” and only eighteen years old, Essena O’Neill had about half a million followers on Instagram and hundreds of thousands of subscribers on Youtube.
But the pressures to constantly post content, maintain a certain body image, and appeal to her mass following took over her identity. “I had the ‘dream life’,” she says in her last video posted on Youtube titled Why I am REALLY Quitting Social Media, “but everything I was doing was edited and contrived to get more… views, likes, followers.”
In the video, she reflects on her introduction into social media and her self-image before she became famous. “When I was twelve, I told myself I meant nothing. That I was worthy of nothing because I wasn’t popular or beautiful by society standards. I obsessively stalked everyone that was online. I looked at other girls that were models, beautiful, famous on Youtube. They had all of these likes, views, and followers. I thought they must be so happy, surrounded by all these people that loved and appreciated them. [I thought] I want that!”
Essena’s experience at twelve is not unique. The age of adolescence has always been a difficult and awkward time. It’s practically the right of passage into puberty to feel insecure about your self-esteem and body image even without the presence of selfies and social media.
As hormones rage, a young person’s separation from childhood creates a loss of contentment with any association of being looked at as a child. They don’t quite know who they are and aren’t comfortable with their past interests they worry could be seen as childish. They strive to be valued and respected in new ways by their peers and adults.
But social media presents new challenges to the adolescent experience unlike any other. As Essena reveals in her video, the real problem became clearer and clearer to her as she struggled to find happiness: “It was never enough. I let myself be defined by something that is so not real.”
Social Media and Social Comparison
Social media addiction has become an issue for the twenty-first century teenager. Teens feel pressure to be constantly available and respond 24/7 to their social media accounts. A huge shift over the past few years is due to a matter of access. With cell phones and new apps each year, like Snapchat, teens feel greater pressure to constantly update their followers.
Users between the ages of 15 to 19 spend at least 3 hours a day on average on social media. That’s on average one hour more than twenty-something millennials.
What does all that time consist of? Besides selfies and sharing cat videos, social media provides an outlet for social comparison. Social comparison means comparing the aspects of our lives—including the disappointments—with our peers’ “highlight reels.”
This limited view of our peers’ accomplishments against our own monotony can create a misperception to our self-worth and success. It causes problems not just for teens, but for everybody.
A study in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology found that social comparison has been the mediating factor between Facebook and depressive symptoms. “It doesn’t mean Facebook causes depression, but that depressed feelings and lots of time on Facebook and comparing oneself to others tend to go hand in hand,” said study author and doctoral candidate Mai-Ly Steers.
This natural tendency to compare ourselves to others is amplified with websites like Facebook, where the only activity is to view and share updates with your friends’ lives.
The Pressure to be Social
Essena claims the lifestyle she had attained seemed perfect, but she was actually “miserable.” Everyone on social media, according to Essena, is miserable. While this is a bold generalization, increased depressive symptoms and anxiety have proven to be another side effect of social media. Especially with teens, these symptoms seem to be worse when users log on at night.
Teens feel a need to be constantly available, leading to anxiety, depression, and poor sleep quality. The fact is many teens place a high emotional investment on their social media presence.
Essena O’Neill is not the first star to dramatically quit social media. In 2009, Miley Cyrus posted a video on Youtube on why she was deleting her Twitter account. She was sixteen at the time. In the video, she rap/sings: “The reasons are simple. I started tweeting about pimples. I stopped living for moments and started living for people.”
A few years later, she returned—partly due to a music tour she was promoting and her own admission that she wanted to follow Charlie Sheen.
With her return, it became obvious to the media that it would be difficult for anyone to truly quit social media. Not with how ingrained it has become in our businesses, friendships, and relationships.
Positive Aspects of Social Media
Overall, many have praised Essena’s message as positive, but some have responded with criticism. Since dramatically quitting social media, Essena has started a brand campaign not only revealing the secret anxieties of each of her Instagram posts—but also promoting causes she believes in like veganism.
This could be seen as hypocritical as she continues to use different forms of social media in new ways. She deleted her Youtube channel, yet created a Vimeo account to post new videos for her website. What it comes to it, and what perhaps Essena is still discovering, is that social media has become a necessary part of shaping your voice in society. Even when she renounces social media, she uses it in her new life focusing on happiness.
Another youtuber, Anna Russett, posted a reaction video shortly after Essena’s video went viral. Anna says “I am not fake. I am not miserable. Social media is wonderful for so many reasons. Social media is a space where people who are not normally made visible, can be made visible.”
Social media is both an industry and a public space that users can engage with for their benefit. We should not forget the potential opportunities provided by social media to connect, build, and maintain relationships.
Without social media, perhaps Essena would have had the same body issues—but not the experience of valuing herself through the quantity of views and likes. What destroyed her potential for happiness was how she felt needed to achieve more, even after she had hit milestones of followers and a modeling contract. There are ways for parents and teens to combat the pressures placed by society to constantly be connected to social media.
Encourage teens to take the time alone to understand their own emotional space. Even a rule like no cell phones during family dinner can help teens think of their lives as separate from their internet selves. Limiting or reducing access to social media is not necessarily the simplest, or most feasible, solution.
A better alternative would be to nurture their self-esteem. Remind them of their value in real life. Towards the end of her video, Essena shares her revelations on the best parts of life: “You know how good it is to not think about what anyone else is doing, but be with real people? You don’t have to go on social media to connect.”
That’s a message everyone, not just teens, should pay attention to.