Image copyright Instagram: Essenaoneill
You must have heard of Essena O’Neill by now.
If you haven’t, Essena is the massively popular 18-year-old Australian Instagram star who has amassed more than 500,000 followers on Instagram, 200,000 on YouTube and Tumblr, and 60,000 on Snapchat. On November 2, she stirred up a global media frenzy when she publicly announced that she was quitting social media for good.
The reason? She wanted to expose the dark side of social media and reveal the “truth” behind her seemingly perfect life. In an 18-minute video published on her YouTube account which has since closed, Essena talked about how she had become obsessed with views, likes, and followers on her social media accounts. She also revealed the extent to which she had gone to create beautiful photos of herself, just to get the numbers to increase. This included starving for days to get the perfect body for a shot, taking some 200 photos for a single post on Instagram, and posing strategically to enhance her best features. Despite the hundreds of thousands in likes and the following she garnered, however, she said that she felt empty and became even more insecure about other people’s opinions of her.
Essena now wants to be a “game-changer”. Her goal, she said, is to inspire others not to be consumed by the need for approval, but to do things that make themselves happy. She has since started her own site, to promote “veganism, plant-based nutrition, environmental awareness, social issues, gender equality, [and] controversial art”.
While many have come out in support of Essena’s bold move, just as many have slammed her for self-promotion, saying that she is simply rebranding herself. Digital media website Mashable noted that the teenage girl’s move would invariably lead to more media appearances—“a strange move”, it noted, “for someone who wants to get the attention off herself.”
So what should we make of her announcement? The debate on how genuine or wise it is could go on forever, but perhaps there is one thing we can all agree on: at the end of the day, every single one of us is self-serving and craves validation, at least a little bit. Whether it’s on social media, among our friends or at work, we are always looking for the approval of others—be it in the form of a Facebook “like”, a thumbs-up, or a pat on the back.
Perhaps quitting social media may help us curb that obsession. But would it just be a superficial solution to a much deeper issue? Would our desire for the approval of others manifest in another form, leaving us feeling empty and wanting all over again?
Maybe it’s time we identify the cause and not just address the symptom. Maybe we shouldn’t blame social media for being insidious and feeding our obsession. Maybe it’s not enough just to tell ourselves repeatedly that we don’t care about what others think. Perhaps, instead, we need to learn to recognize that all of us have this void—this desire to be affirmed. And we need to deal with it head on, and ask ourselves questions such as: Is there a way to manage our desire for the affirmation of others? Is there another way to measure our self-worth? And whose opinion should we take?
Perhaps the solution is to fill the void with something else. In a world where values change like shifting sand, we might do well to look to the only constant—the One who made us and defines who we are.
Take a moment to ask yourself: Do you truly value God’s opinion above all else?
Because when you do that, it will no longer matter how many likes you get on Facebook or how many followers you have on Instagram. Your value will be secure in God.