This past week, 18-year-old social media star Essena O’Neill announced that she was done with the internet. From all accounts she has everything that we expect teenage girls to want: fame, fortune, and a well-documented thigh gap. And with over half a million followers on Instagram and hundreds of thousands of subscribers to her YouTube channel, O’Neill should be killing it at life right now. Only, she’s not. She appears to have grown tired of acting like her life is a well-documented journey to golden perfection.
Study after study tells us that it is emotionally harmful for us to see other peoples’ lives on the internet and find ourselves envious. That’s not news. But, I have begun to wonder in terms of the psychological damage of social media if it isn’t also dark to be the one posing as perfect? In her renunciation of her internet personal, Essena O’Neill looks at that version of herself and asks, “So why did I feel so lost, lonely and miserable?” And while it would be easy to write an attractive teenage girl off as vain and ridiculous, I think we’d be missing out on a moment of our own reckoning.
What is the cost of posting our lives on the internet? It’s a question I think about constantly. I post photos on Instagram on a very regular basis. And yet, I always post these photos with an undercurrent of worry. I wonder who sees them and how they will be interpreted.
Many of my photos involve my kids at the church where my husband is Pastor. And while this sounds far less exciting than O’Neill’s own Instagram account, I would be lying if I said that we were so different. My photos posit a life that is both real and completely false. Yes, we are at church. Yes, those are my kids. Yes, that was a beautiful photograph that I captured of them. But is it the whole story? Does it include the Sunday Morning Yelling for my four year old to turn off the cartoons? Or the anxiety about getting two kids to church by myself? Does it speak to the loneliness of often sitting on a pew alone? No, of course it doesn’t. This is Instagram, people, not Mockingbird.
And so I worry about the people I love who will see these photos. First, I think of my friends who cannot have children and how difficult it might be to always see photos of mine. And then I think of my friends who can’t find a church that they like, or for whom church has never been a comforting place, and I wonder, do my photos make them feel sad? Also, I just generally worry that our social media connections will think we live in a sinless state of parental and marital bliss.
Recently, my mom told me about an old friend of mine from childhood who had pulled back from social media because she couldn’t cope with seeing “everyone’s perfect lives.” I had lost touch with this friend over the years. So I assume all she was seeing of my life were the Instagram moments of my cherubic children attending Christmas Eve services. My friend hadn’t gotten the memo about our miscarriages, and my almost not graduating from seminary. It turns out there’s not an Instagram filter that makes those life events look better. So when my mom casually mentioned that this once-closefriend of mine thought everyone’s lives were better than hers, I felt like I needed to pick up the phone and fill her in on all of the painfully true details. I know my photos weren’t the only ones promoting a false narrative of flawlessness, but they definitely weren’t helping.
Essena O’Neill has crafted her own way of dealing with the situation. She has entered into full blown Confessional mode. She has gone back through much of her Instagram account, deleted photos that she deemed self-promotional and added authentic comments to others. The weird thing about social media is that when people “get real” it often makes us uncomfortable. Isn’t this just a distracting platform for us to lie to one another? Why are you telling the truth?
I have a dear friend who, like O’Neill, has a significant social media following. Michaela Evanow is a fellow writer/mother and she Instagrams like an artist. But her account is different. She’s got the cheery photos of her children and husband, for sure. But her narrative has been one of loss and vulnerability. Her eldest child, Florence, died of a terrible disease called of Spinal Muscular Atrophy at the age of 3. Evanow posted photos of her beautiful daughter from infancy through hospice. Her transparency in this process was so moving and inspiring that a hashtag was created called #mamagrief so that other women can feel comfortable talking about the deaths of their own children. And while it’s not the usual sexy/funny/cute that we’ve all come to expect from the internet, it is real and necessary. I don’t know if that kind of authenticity is what the future of social media is headed towards. But I know there is a longing for something other than the window dressings of perfection that we all appear to be giving one another.
The internet offers an endless opportunity to practice the sin of omission. We get to post all of our bright and shiny and stick the rest of our crap under the bushel. And maybe I’m just speaking for myself here, but I think the jig may be up.
Or get in touch.