The Inevitable Takedown of 18-Year-Old Instagram Star Essena O'Neill

The Instagram sensation quit her accounts last week with a series of exposés about the nature of the business—and now she's facing attack.

Two days ago, 18-year-old Instagram personality Essena O'Neill became a bonafide viral star (opens in new tab) when she announced her plans to quit social media and went back to edit the captions on her Instagram photos to show, as her new handle states, that "social media is not real life." 

"I've spent the majority of my teenage life being addicted to social media, social approval, social status, and my physical appearance," O'Neill wrote in one post, "[Social media] is contrived images and edited clips ranked against each other. It's a system based on social approval, likes, validation, in views, success in followers. it's perfectly orchestrated self-absorbed judgement."

As more outlets picked up O'Neill's story, the Aussie was met with an outpouring of support (opens in new tab) from everyone from fellow Instagram stars like Kayla Itsines who wrote in a post, "On my account, I'll tell you now, you don't see a lot of things. Not because I don't want to show you, because I cannot physically take a photo of them. Things like...the 5am wake ups, the late nights, the constant bullying, the lack of support and understanding of friends, the stress...and so much more." to celebrities like Sophia Bush, who tweeted that she and her friends had spent the day discussing O'Neill's story:

See more

But, inevitably, the backlash has begun. 

Two YouTubers, sisters Nina and Randa, who are friends of O'Neill's say it's all a stunt. "'She has more Instagram followers than ever because of this publicity stunt," they say in their own YouTube video (opens in new tab) called "ESSENA O'NEILL Quitting Social Media Is A HOAX." Their brother, Willie, also weighed in (opens in new tab) in a video called "ESSENA ONEILL IS FAKE," which echoes Nina and Randa's comments about Essena claiming to be at the "pinnacle of success" and her thoughts on the people around her being fake and depressed. Their videos have been viewed over 100,000 times. And others have joined in (opens in new tab) on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, calling her a liar, poser, etc.

It's a lot.

Is it true that by decrying social media via social media, O'Neill increased her social media presence dramatically? Well, yes. But how else is a teenager supposed to express herself these days? And is it true that O'Neill, having abandoned her income stream which came from sponsored social media posts, has asked for money? Yup. And there's no denying there's something a bit icky and hypocritical feeling about that. 

But what's ickier is the swiftness with which O'Neill's former YouTube friends and many more seem to want to see her taken down and exposed as a fraud. Because whether or not there's something stunt-y behind O'Neill's campaign against the impossible-to-attain images of perfection perpetuated by social media, her message—that living your life for validation from others via likes on social media is harmful and isolating—is one worth listening to. 

 The pressure to be perfect, to be thin, to successful, to be cool, to be liked, is amplified to extremes on social media and it can become dangerous, especially for a tween or teen who hasn't had enough life experience to distinguish #goals from goals. We're lucky that people are starting to speak out about what it's like to face that pressure—whether it's admitting that it took 100 tries to get one perfect bikini shot or standing up to haters on social media like Gigi Hadid did (opens in new tab) in a recent Instagram:

A post shared by Gigi Hadid (@gigihadid) (opens in new tab)

A photo posted by on

So, even if O'Neill "isn't here for the right reasons" to borrow a popular phrase from another not-so-real source, reality TV, we still have her to thank for starting an important conversation about social media.  

Sally Holmes
Sally Holmes

Sally is the Editor in Chief of Marie Claire where she oversees coverage of all the things the Marie Claire reader wants to know about, including politics, beauty, fashion, and celebs. She came to Marie Claire from ELLE.com, where she was the Executive Editor. Before that, Sally was at NYMag.com's the Cut and graduated with an English major from Boston College. Her favorite Harry Potter is 'Order of the Phoenix.'