When I read about Essena’s decision to quit social media, initially, I sighed with relief.
Truth be told, it was the first time I’d heard of the young woman but when I read that she was openly acknowledging that ‘social media isn’t real’, I exhaled. For many reasons. Mostly because I learned that this 19-year old has more than 700,000 loyal followers across Instagram, SnapChat & Youtube, whom were now being told that the façade of perfection promoted on social media is exactly that. A façade.
But, the more I’ve read, the less relieved I feel. As the hours tick by, as Essena’s situation becomes increasingly ugly, worry has taken the place of my initial relief.
She is asking her followers for money, saying she can’t afford her real life. Two of her former friends have made a video of their own – already a viral sensation – describing her decision to quit social media as a hoax. Essena is still posting on various platforms and I am crying on the inside.
At the risk of sounding like an overbearing parent and a patronising elder rolled into one, I want to take Essena aside and suggest she walk away from the internet for a while.
A couple of months ago, not for the first time, I found myself the target of some pretty ugly online abuse. It came on quite quickly and for reasons I can’t properly explain, on that day, these messages brought me to tears. Proper tears. Tears so full and so relentless that I dove into a taxi rather than getting on my bus. I was not fit for public consumption.
The taxi driver was unbelievably kind. He actually pulled over, gave me a new bottle of water and asked if I was ok. I tried to explain it to him. It’s so silly, I said. People are saying mean things about me on the internet.
It sounded ridiculous. Yet, there I was in tears, filled with shame. When I arrived home and showed my husband the messages he nearly cried too. They were vile.
Now being somewhat accustomed to this kind of feedback, once my tears had dried up, I did a little soul-searching about why this batch of messages had set me off. I figured it was, as it always is, because I wasn’t feeling my most resilient. I was only a few weeks into a new job, I was in the first trimester of pregnancy and overall I wasn’t feeling on top of the world. When your mental chips are down, online jibes hurt more.
It was a Friday night and I knew it was time for a weekend away from the internet. A weekend to indulge in “real life” and ignore the world wide web, which I did with one exception. The next morning I posted a few screenshots of the messages on my personal Facebook and said they had really gotten me down.
The reaction from friends and family placated me instantly. I felt my shame, wasn’t really my shame. Yes, some people had written mean things about me, but that didn’t mean they were true. I was reminded that I am lucky to have people who know and care about me – regardless of what others say. I was reminded, once again, that the internet is not the world.
Which is not to say there is no value, fun or enjoyment to be had online. There is. Social media can be incredibly uplifting – as my Saturday morning perk-up via Facebook reminded me. It can also be tremendously useful, entertaining and powerful. But the world does not start, nor does it end, with the internet.
And that is the lesson, I would very much like Essena to learn. It won’t be easy because she is 19 years old and her life has been the internet. Her life has been documented in thousands of images online, her income has been derived from her social media following and her world has been shaped by it.
Her tearful video diary yesterday makes the pitfalls of this clear.
“Without realising, I’ve spent majority of my teenage life being addicted to social media, social approval, social status and my physical appearance. Social media, especially how I used it, isn’t real,” she said. “It’s a system based on social approval, likes, validation in views, success in followers. It’s perfectly orchestrated self absorbed judgement.”
She spoke about the fact she was deluding her followers, but she was also, unwittingly, deluding herself. Perhaps she still is. Either way she is selling herself short because, like all of us, Essena has value beyond social media.
I doubt there is an adult on this planet who breezed through their teenage years without stumbling. Without experiencing crippling insecurity about something or doubting themselves and their place in this world. It is a rite of passage, few avoid. The truth is, plenty of adults still succumb to these fears too.
But most people my age got to navigate that period in their lives without the intense glare of social media. Young people today aren’t afforded that luxury.
When I think of Essena today, I think of myself as a 33 year old woman brought to tears and rattled by some nastiness online. I genuinely don’t know how I would have responded as a 19 year old.
But I do know this. The stuff that grounds me after encountering any online skirmish, is deeply rooted in the real world. It’s going outside. It’s talking on the phone to anyone in my immediate family, or seeing friends. It’s watching TV with my husband and playing with my kids. It’s chatting to the guys who run the café down the road. Or cooking.
If your entire life is online where do you retreat?
The good news for Essena, as far as I see it, is she has the opportunity to explore everything she can build, do and see away from the internet. There is a big wide world out there.