Teen Instagram star Essena O'Neill hailed as a 'revolutionary' for quitting social media

"Stomach sucked in, strategic pose, pushed-up boobs. I just want younger girls to know this isn't candid life, or cool or inspirational. It's contrived perfection made to get attention."

'I just want younger girls to know this isn't candid life'

At 18, Essena O'Neill had built herself an online following that most people her age can only ever dream about — and she was miserable under the pressure. (Instagram/essenaoneill)

The act of "quitting" social media in 2015 has become nearly as clichéd as the #fitfam photos flooding Instagram right now (especially when said quitter pops up with gym selfies in your feed again two weeks later.)

And yet not all "I'm deleting my account!!!" announcements are created equal.

An Australian teenager is prompting more head turns than eye rolls this week by actively destroying a social media empire she's spent much of her life building — and choosing to have a life "in the real world" over all of the sponsorship money, social status and career opportunities that come with having 500,000 followers.

Essena O'Neill, now 18, started posting photos of herself "dressing older" and "trying to be sexy" at the age of 12 in an attempt to become "Facebook famous." 

"I figured the more people that clicked 'like' on my photos, the more people actually liked me in real life," she wrote of how she came to be obsessed with social media attention. "To be Facebook famous meant everyone liked you. Girls wanted to be your friend, boys wanted to date you. Everyone talked about you, watched you, stalked you, wanted to be you."

'A 15-year-old-girl that calorie restricts and excessively exercises is not goals,' wrote O'Neil in the caption of another re-edited Instagram post. 'Anyone addicted to social media fame like I once was, is not in a conscious state.' (Instagram/@essenaoneill)

By 16, O'Neill says her internet fame had surpassed everyone else in her Queensland town.

"I had all the attention I had ever dreamed of and more. And … I had never been more miserable in my life," she wrote. "I liked myself based on how tight and toned my body was, how pretty my hair and makeup was, how hot the guy I was talking to was … my whole idea of self-worth revolved around my appearance and my social media status."

Still, she continued to primp, pose for and post photos of herself across various social networks throughout the remainder of her school years, spending "endless hours every day" on social media until she had amassed more than half a million followers on Instagram alone.

By the time she'd graduated high school, O'Neill was making enough money through brand sponsorships, YouTube ad revenue and modelling gigs to support herself while travelling the world.

'Social media is not real life' 

O'Neill announced to her Instagram followers last week that she'd no longer be sharing "perfectly orchestrated" bikini shots or "deluding people" with sponsored posts.

While her account still remains active, the young Australian has deleted over 2,000 photos that she says "served no real purpose other than self-promotion." Her YouTube channel has been similarly scrubbed, leaving only a handful of vegan cooking videos in place.

What many online are finding interesting this week, however, are the photos that still remain on O'Neill's Instagram page — most of them edited to include new captions that she believes to be "educational."

In the caption of one beach photo posted last spring, O'Neill writes: "Took over 100 in similar poses trying to make my stomach look good. Would have hardly eaten that day. Would have yelled at my little sister to keep taking them until I was somewhat proud of this. Yep so totally #goals."

"Was paid $400 to post a dress," she wrote under a more recent image. "I know of many online brands (with big budgets) that pay up to $2,000 per post ... Be aware what people promote, ask yourself, what's their intention behind the photo?"

O'Neill further explained why she's leaving the world of instafame behind in a 20-minute video posted to YouTube on Monday.

Wearing no makeup, she tearfully tells the camera how much she regrets wasting her teen years trying to attain social media fame.

"I quit social media because of my 12-year-old self," she says in the video. "Being with people in your real life, hugging people, talking to people ... that is ... real life, and I didn't do it for the majority of my life ... I was just living in a screen."

The popularity of the emotional video, which has racked up more than two million views in just 24 hours, can be attributed in large part to O'Neill's story going viral this week.

Comments on the clip itself have been disabled, but tens of thousands are speaking up to thank O'Neill for articulating something many young women have been feeling in recent years, whether consciously or not.

In light of her recent virality, O'Neill is using her website, Let's Be Game Changers, to encourage others to quit social media for a week.

"Everyone's doing it. We just keep putting up staged photos in desperate hopes others will approve," she wrote this week. "Remove yourself from the box. Then you'll be able to think out of it."

UPDATE: O'Neill has deleted both her Instagram and YouTube accounts entirely amid mounting criticism from other popular teens on Instagram.


  • The name of the site referred to in the article is Let's Be Game Changers, not Let's Be Changers as originally indicated.
    Nov 04, 2015 3:53 AM ET