Social Media Is Not Real Life, But That’s Not the Problem


This week, an 18-year-old Instagram celebrity from Australia blew up the internet. Essena O’Neill,  a young woman who had built a career for herself by posting glamorous photos to social networks, announced to her half a million Instagram followers that she was quitting.

Done. Finished. Gone. Social media, O’Neill said, does not reflect reality.

Before deactivating her Instagram, Tumblr, YouTube, and Snapchat accounts, O’Neill changed the captions on each of her photos to reflect the way she says she really felt when they were taken.

“Took over 100 in similar poses trying to make my stomach look good,” wrote O’Neill, next to a photo of her posing in a bikini on the beach. “Would have hardly eaten that day.”

Her declaration flooded the web, ringing loud and clear: “SOCIAL MEDIA IS NOT REAL LIFE.” 

But we already knew that, didn’t we?

The concept of faking a “perfect” life on social media has been around almost as long as social media itself.

The concept of faking a “perfect” life on social media has been around almost as long as social media itself.

“Comparison is the thief of joy!,” cried basically the entire blogosphere way back in 2010, when we were still uploading outfit photos and DIY tutorials to blogspot accounts.

And yet, no matter how hard we tried, no matter how much we lamented the inauthenticity of our online selves, the curated and edited content just kept on coming.

The truth is we all wish our online selves were our authentic selves, and we’re good at pretending they are. 


Parody Instagram account @SocalityBarbie does a good (and hilarious) job of satirizing the way we all hope to live “authentic” lives in the most beautiful, well-photographed way possible.

“Could I be any more authentic?I” The caption reads, next to a photo of the Barbie doll posing in front of the famous Vance Creek Bridge.

If Socality Barbie were a real person, she’d understand, just as O’Neill did, that truly authentic, unstaged moments are priceless and special and important, but they don’t get you Instagram likes. (SIDE NOTE: Socality Barbie is also quitting instagram. )

For an article I wrote a few months ago, I tried out a new social media app called BEME. BEME was supposed to be the “authentic” social platform, set up in a way that would prevent users from curating content or creating “fake” versions of their lives.

Do you want the honest truth? I got bored using it, and I got bored fast. So did most everyone else, apparently, because the app never really made it off the ground.

Most of the Instagram accounts I follow are curated, barring the ones that belong to a few close friends. I follow photographers, food bloggers, and fashionistas who all post gorgeous, interesting content that inspires my creative side (or simply entertains me when I should be working.)

So no, social media is not real life, but the fact that it’s fake isn’t the problem.

The problem lies not in WHAT we post, but in WHY.


In a video explaining her decision to deactivate her accounts (which has since been deleted), O’Neil admitted that growing up on social media (she started when she was 12) had made her extremely depressed.

At one particularly poignant moment, she displayed a photo she’d posted of herself holding up her shirt to show off her flat stomach. O’Neill said the only moment she’d felt happiness that day was when she’d posted that photo.

She is, essentially, a child. And she’s been taught her whole life that a little “heart” button defines her self worth.

We now live in a world of instant sharing, and that world has created a culture in which all of our self-love comes from the affirmations of others instead of from somewhere within ourselves.  

Connected as we are, we never have to be alone.

Self-esteem starts inside and radiates outward, not the other way around.

There won’t ever need to be a moment where we look at ourselves long and hard in the mirror and say “this is it. This is who I really am,” and decide for ourselves whether or not we like the person we see.

There’s no need for that any more; A handy device in our pocket can quantify just how loved and wanted and valued we are, one like at a time.

If we acknowledge that social media is not real, we can begin to disconnect what we see online with real-life expectations. We can separate social media from our sense of self-worth.

I applaud Essena O’Neill for choosing her own mental and physical well-being over the approval of strangers. I thank her for reminding us that self-esteem starts inside and radiates outward, not the other way around.

It’s OK that social media is not real life. It’s OK that it’s a fictional world made of Prada bags and avocado-on-toast.

Just remember that self-love doesn’t come from that world. It comes from the real one.

The real you. 

So what can we do about it? 

On her new blog Let’s be Gamechangers, O’Neill challenges readers to go one week without social media. Yes, that means deleting your social media apps and using your phones to call/text only.

This, she says, is not about giving up social media forever, but giving yourself the time to figure out what makes you truly happy on your own, without the internet. We encourage you to take this challenge!

If you’re not willing or able to give up social media just yet, consider the following suggestions:

  • Start paying attention to the moments you mindlessly open Instagram or Facebook. Is it when you’re by yourself for a minute or two? When you should be working or studying? Be more mindful of the time you spend habitually browsing.
  • Turn off your social media notifications. This will keep you from wasting those 3-5 minutes of social media scanning every time your phone buzzes. You can go in and check your feeds periodically, but it will be a much more mindful action and you’ll have more control over your time.
  • Put your phone away when you’re sharing a meal with friends or family (or if you’re spending time with another person in general). I repeat: Put. Your phone. Away. Channel your energy into building real, face-to-face relationships.
  • Remind yourself often that what you see online is not a standard by which you should grade your life.

Do you feel like social media has affected your self esteem? What have you done to combat those feelings? Do you think giving up social media is the answer?

Share your thoughs in the comments!