Recent outburst by Instagram starlet meets support as well as backlash

By Ellise Shafer, ’17

In early November, Essena O’Neill’s 574,000 Instagram followers were shocked when the 19-year-old Australian model announced that she was quitting social media. She explained her actions in an emotional YouTube video, saying that social media is “unhealthy” and “not real life”. After the video had acquired around 900,000 views, she deleted her YouTube account. As for her Instagram, she deleted over 2,000 posts, leaving 96 with re-edited captions detailing the reality of what it took to get that photo.

Screen Shot 2015-12-08 at 7.58.14 AMScreen Shot 2015-12-08 at 8.00.55 AM“[This post is] not real life,” O’Neill wrote in the description underneath a picture of herself in a tight white dress. “I didn’t pay for the dress, took countless photos trying to look hot for Instagram [and] the formal made me feel incredibly alone.”

After leaving this for the world to see for about a week, O’Neill fully deleted her Instagram account.

All of this has generated support for O’Neill— as well as backlash.

Zack James, CEO of Rise9, a social media follower-growing company, was the first to fight back against O’Neill’s words and actions.

“Social media can be whatever the user desires it to be,” James wrote on Facebook. “Allowing yourself to become pressured into a false life that you’re uncomfortable with is the result of your own actions and intent.”

Screen Shot 2015-12-08 at 7.58.14 AM

In addition, former friends of O’Neill, twins Nina and Randa Nelson, spoke out in a YouTube video entitled “Hoax: Essena Quits Social Media”. In the video, the twins, who are known for their singing abilities, said that O’Neill had recently broken up with a boyfriend, which is why they believe she lashed out. They went on to state that they perceived the situation to be a publicity stunt, as O’Neill “loves attention too much to give it up.”

The stir O’Neill caused and the backlash that followed have led students at UAHS to question the validity of social media, as well as that of other Instagram stars, namely power couples Jay Alvarrez and Alexis Ren and Savannah Montano and Jessey Stevens.

22-year-old Alvarrez and 18-year-old Ren have become “instafamous” due to their model-good looks and abundant travels, gaining them over two million followers each. 19-year-old Montano and 23-year-old Stevens don’t live out of a suitcase as much as Alvarrez and Ren, but they have a strong following; the couple totaling to over two million followers. Both couples have posted concerning O’Neill’s actions, with Alvarrez and Ren affirming to their fans that social media is a wonderful thing, and Montano and Stevens uploading a YouTube video explaining their views.

However, UAHS students who are active on Instagram are unsure about the validity of these couples’ accounts, like senior Will Sullivan, who himself has 1,470 followers on Instagram.

“I wouldn’t go as far to call their posts fake because that is actually them in their pictures, usually doing things they love. But, [these photos are] staged for sure,” Sullivan said. “Good for Jay and Alexis and Jessey and Savannah, they defied the odds of Instagram and have actually made a life out of this platform. Whether it is their real life or not, they still have amounted to success and fame.”

However, UAHS alum and Ohio University freshman Claire Shaner, who has 3,534 followers on Instagram, defends the couples.

“It honestly bothers me when people say relationships are fake such as Jay and Alexis and Jessey and Savannah. Just because two people are beautiful and have beautiful experiences together doesn’t mean they aren’t real people really loving each other,” Shaner said. “I think people who criticize that are just unhappy with themselves to the point where they think criticizing happiness will make them feel better.”

Shaner points out O’Neill as someone who is guilty of criticizing the joy of others.

“I think what [O’Neill] said was blown way out of proportion,” Shaner said. “It really wasn’t fair to include all big social media users when she said ‘we are not happy’. I am in no way a big social media icon at all but I do follow a lot of people with over a million users who I can  personally guarantee are truly happy.”

Sullivan agrees with Shaner, stating that O’Neill is the problem; not social media.

“Essena O’Neill is a perfect example of someone who stages her photos to cater to the demands of her followers,” Sullivan said. “I believe that everyone blaming social media for the dangers of it is ridiculous, because in reality the people who post, edit their pictures thoroughly and stage their lives, are the ones who are causing the danger.”

Nonetheless, Sullivan has also found himself catering to the wants of his followers, instead of his own desires.

“I first got an Instagram in eighth grade. As an eighth grader I used instagram to post what I wanted to post and show people what I wanted them to see. I barely posted any pictures of myself,” Sullivan said. “As the years went on and my maturity grew, I started to post pictures that I necessarily didn’t want to post, but rather post pictures I felt other people would like. As I did this, I started to gain a lot more followers than expected.”

Because of this, Sullivan finds it easy to understand why Instagram stars post pictures that teenagers hypocritically call “fake” or “staged”; they are trying to maintain a public image to their countless followers.

“The [follower] count is stressful because again, I want to uphold my public image,” Sullivan said. “It crosses my mind every time I think about posting a picture. But, I also usually always post at night because that is the best time to accumulate the most likes. I hate admitting that I am in it for the likes, but I think everyone is. The amount of likes someone gets can really boost their self-confidence, but can also be detrimental to the person if they do not get enough likes.”

Shaner, however, tries to remember the true purpose of Instagram when posting a picture: to share something that you love with others.

“I only post pictures that I like, regardless of how many likes I think it will get, Shaner said, although her posts usually receive upwards of 350 likes. “What pictures I post truly depends on whether I like it or not.”

However, according to Sullivan there is still a way to take social media back to the innocence of its beginnings.

“Many accounts can be dangerous because of the perceived notion of perfection amongst the followers of the famous accounts,” Sullivan said. “A way to fix the unhealthy aspect of social media [is for Instagram stars] to attempt to relate to their followers more, and post more realistic photos.”

Despite its downsides, Shaner continues to praise social media and the opportunities that it has given her.

“I think social media is a wonderful thing,” Shaner said. “I’ve honestly met a lot of my friends now from social media, and it’s so awesome that you can express yourself in any way you want and be free to be whoever you want to be.”