When teenage Instagram star Essena O’Neill (500,000+ followers) released a video of herself breaking down in tears over the impact social media had had on her life, followed by a pledge to leave her beloved sites for good, the internet – ironically – exploded. Check her account now and the enviable photographs are no longer visible, her settings changed to “private”. Perhaps she had a first look at the results of a study by Danish academics, published this week, which found that people who were unable to access Facebook for a week reported feeling “55 per cent less stressed” after the imposed break.
Done with social media she may be, but O’Neill is not quite done with the internet. The appearance of her new website, called Let’s Be Game Changers, means her dramatic exit from social media is now being read as a ploy to gain fans and funds for her future career – she has already made an appeal for money after abandoning the sponsorship that had kept her afloat during her Instagram days.
Other social media stars have, somewhat predictably, criticised her. YouTube twins “Nina and Randa” uploaded a video stating that not all social media celebrities are miserable – they’re happy, thanks very much, describing O’Neill’s sudden rejection of the medium as “a hoax”. The halcyon days when Nina, Randa and Essena bustled around the internet together in a haze of hyperbolic Twitter love-ins are over. These internet friends are clearly of the fair-weather variety.
Some aspects of O’Neill’s social media exposé are genuinely shocking. “Behind the Image”, a section of her new site that deconstructs the process behind taking one supposedly candid Instagram shot, reveals the dark truth: hundreds of photographs taken in different poses by a long-suffering little sister; legs carefully positioned to achieve the infamous thigh gap; stomachs sucked in; a 15th birthday dinner ruined by the obsessive checking of digital updates to see if the holy grail of 100 “likes” had been achieved. In another video, she claims that a fellow social media star contacted her proposing a relationship – because it would bolster both of their followings. An internet relationship, constructed online and packaged for a particular kind of audience, is surely proof that social media hysteria has reached its nadir. What was intended to document people’s lives now dominates them instead.
And yet, and yet. Can it really be true that social media are to blame for every hiccup of the digital native? Is this constant, compulsive, hormonally charged output really any different to what you might have found in a teenage diary 20 years ago?
Scrolling through social media, you could be forgiven for thinking the world has gone mad: mad for clickable likes without human connection, Facebook friends without real-life relationships, and Twitter storms conducted from keyboards without proper debates around physical dining tables. But that would be a gross simplification of how young people use the tools of the internet.
Social media are also the sounding board and the starting point for many interesting and important real-life human relationships. Grass-roots political campaigning has been bolstered by the reach of social networks. Free blogging platforms have launched the careers of aspiring journalists without family media connections. Isolated and ignored regions of the world can share their stories. Research shows that Twitter can now even predict when norovirus is about to break out in your area. To ignore these positive developments because you’re sick of seeing another high-resolution shot of avocado on toast in your timeline would be churlish indeed.
People talk about social media’s churn rate as though they never heard the old adage that today’s newspaper is tomorrow’s fish-and-chip paper. Yes, it’s a fast-paced, unedited bombardment of information, much of which can be dismissed as inane chatter. Human interaction was ever thus. But being able to stay in contact with old friends who have moved across the globe in the click of a button is worth the status updates about the teething issues of your second cousin’s newborn, surely? It’s merely a question of priorities.
If you do make like Essena O’Neill and throw in the social media towel, good luck getting invited to a genuine, real-life party when you’re not on Facebook. The pursuit of happiness may indeed be best conducted offline, but so long as you’re using social media like a responsible adult, there’s no reason to believe it will destroy your life. Your Instagram, after all, only has as much power as you give it.
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