By all accounts and according to worldly standards, the Australian-born model Essena O’Neill had it made. She had built a career on social media, becoming an overnight Internet sensation with hundreds of thousands of followers and a nice chunk of change to the tune of several thousand dollars per selfie. With money and fame that went well beyond any nineteen-year-old’s wildest dreams, what could possibly be missing?
Well, apparently everything. Referring to her former career as an empty and false life she created, in the fall of 2015 O’Neill shocked her more than eight hundred thousand followers on Instagram by suddenly launching a campaign against social media, changing her Instagram name to “Social Media Is Not Real Life.” She recaptioned her online photos to show how they had been manipulated by technology. In one picture, clad in a bikini, the caption explained that the photo had been taken more than a hundred times. The caption reads, “There is nothing real about this."
In an emotional video she recorded, O’Neill claimed that so many images of herself were repeatedly edited that she didn’t even know what was real anymore. She recalled how quickly her selfies became an obsession for approval, and this consumed her.
"This was the reason why I quit social media: for me, personally, it consumed me. I wasn’t living in a 3D world. I remember I obsessively checked the like count for a full week since uploading it. It got 5 likes. This was when I was so hungry for social media validation…. Now marks the day I quit all social media and focus on real life projects."
She was brutally honest about constantly attempting to change her appearance, confessing that she obsessively restricted her calories and exercised excessively.
Some accused the teen of engaging in yet another marketing ploy: revamping her image to gain even more attention and media exposure. O’Neill, however, insists this is not the case; instead she is encouraging her followers to join her in living a real life in the real world. “Go outside, go to a park, go to a beach, go somewhere where there are people around you. What I am doing here is a statement that real life isn’t through screens.”
Now she challenges her followers to try and go even a week without social media. In one of her videos, she says she hopes to convince as many people as possible that all that glitters is indeed not gold. She appeared to be the “pinnacle of success” but inside, she was miserable. “I had it all and I was miserable because when you let yourself be defined by numbers you let yourself be defined by something that is not pure, that is not real.”
By the world’s standards she had everything to lose, and she tells those who have not yet allowed themselves to be lost in the selfie world that they have everything to gain.
"I’m not against sharing. I am against the current status of social media and I have everything to lose by doing this. There are people around you. Go do things that you love to do in the real world."
Following Jesus' Example
Although Essena O’Neill never brings up the issue of faith, the concepts she raises concerning making a difference echo what Jesus says about laying down our lives for others. She tells people to go out and volunteer, meet people, be connected. “You don’t need to prove your value on social.”
A week after Essena O’Neill announced her plans to look for real meaning in her life outside of herself, Pope Francis told a congregation gathered at St. Peter’s that focusing on the needs of others is completely countercultural, but it’s the only way to find true happiness.
Whoever serves and gives, seems like a failure in the eyes of the world. In reality, it is exactly in giving their life that they find it. A life that “takes possession of itself, losing itself in love, imitates Christ” in defeating death and giving life to the world, he said, adding that “whoever serves, saves. On the contrary, those who don’t serve have no reason to be alive.”
The pope was celebrating Mass for the cardinals and bishops who passed away in 2015, and he stressed the sacrifices made by them as they lived their lives for the Church and not themselves.
One’s life ought to be spent imitating Jesus’ example of humble service and self-giving, rather than focusing on one’s own needs and interests. Jesus came not to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for others—and he did it out of love. [The love of Jesus is] truly a concrete love, so concrete that he took our death upon himself…. This is the abasement that the Son of God underwent: bending down to us as a servant to assume everything that is ours, opening wide for us the doors of life.
Pope Francis asked those sitting in St. Peter’s that day the same question Essena O’Neill essentially asked the followers who were so enamored with her allegedly glamorous and fulfilling life: “What are you living for?”
All of us have to ask ourselves that question. What are we living for? Is what we’re living for right now truly God’s will for our lives? If it’s not God’s will, if you’re honest with yourself, you’ll eventually know it. St. Paul tells us in Romans 2:15 that “what the law requires” is written on our hearts.
When It’s Time to Walk
Her followers, friends, and business associates were shocked when Essena O’Neill made such a radical change. Why in the world would she walk away from so much fame and fortune? Had she stayed in the spotlight, she stood to earn even more money. But it didn’t make her happy. Something wasn’t sitting right with her at the core of her being, in her soul, and she knew something had to change.
Some of my close friends and even some of my relatives thought I had a few screws loose when I decided to walk away from the secular media over sixteen years ago. It had been seven years since my return to the Catholic Church, and I was working as a news director for a large FM station in the Detroit area. It was a cushy job, to say the least. The money was great, and I had weekends and holidays off—which was a major coup in the 24/7 broadcasting business. In addition to being part of a popular daily morning drive radio show, I had my own weekend public affairs program. What could make me want to walk away from all that?
Well, while I wasn’t as totally miserable and lost as Essena, I can certainly say that I wasn’t fulfilled either. After leaving TV news in the late 1990s, I thought that going back to secular radio would be a great fit for me. It would provide me with regular hours and allow me to pursue some writing. My schedule was flexible enough that I could attend Bible study with my husband during the week and have somewhat of a normal life—much more normal than the grinding schedule of live TV news. I naively thought I could have at least some impact through my on-air work. There would be no more ambulance chasing; I no longer had to worry about doing live shots from horrible accident or murder scenes. I hoped I could be a positive influence and make some sort of a difference.
Within a few short months, I found out that the only difference the station owners were interested in was making was in the ratings. The bottom line was the only thing that mattered to them, and the only way to maintain that, in their minds, was to cater to the lowest common dominator—in others words, lots of trash talk, sexual content, and bad jokes. My time on the air was reduced to about two minutes of news per hour, consisting of mostly fluff or feature news stories.
Yes, I was able to do some in-depth interviews on my public affairs program, but not really on the topics I cared about. In addition, the program aired on the weekends at the crack of dawn, so the only ones listening for the most part were Sunday morning golfers. Is this what I went to journalism school for?
As hard as it was for me to admit, the broadcast industry— and more specifically broadcast news—was hurtling down that slippery slope at high rates of speed, and I was going right down with it. I can identify to some extent with Essena O’Neil in terms of not being proud of the work I was doing. I started to feel ashamed to be associated with such weak and often foul programming content. Therefore, after only two years on the job, I approached my station manager and asked him to negotiate an early buyout for me. He agreed, and my husband and I used the money to start my communications and media awareness company.
In all honesty, in making this decision I struggled with my ego as I faced the loss of financial compensation and physical comfort of my radio news director’s job. It wasn’t as if I was the next Joan of Arc, was ready and willing to do anything to conquer the world for Christ. Far from it. For twenty years I had been a general assignment reporter in the rough-andtumble world of TV news. That meant nights, weekends, holidays, early mornings. It meant standing outside in the brutal cold. Couldn’t I just enjoy a cushy on-air job and coast for a while? I enjoyed being on the air and couldn’t imagine my life without a microphone in it in some way, shape, or form.
But the law of the Lord, written on my heart, kept tugging at me, and deep down I knew I needed to move on. I knew I would never really be happy if I stayed in the secular media. I had no idea that I would someday be writing books, speaking, and hosting shows on Catholic radio and TV. I just knew that I wanted and needed to use my media skills for good. If I didn’t, I would never be able to live with myself—no matter how appealing the perks were.
Superficial and Empty vs. Deeply Compassionate
The reality is that a shallow life—one lacking in depth and focusing on externals in hopes of finding personal satisfaction— just doesn’t deliver. A truly meaningful life results from helping others, putting them before one’s own comfort and satisfaction.
You might be surprised to learn that long before Essena O’Neill became an Internet celebrity, and long before yours truly jumped the secular media ship, the Christian concept of giving in order to receive, living for something other than one’s self, had been proven successful—and not just in religious circles. Yes, compassion really does work when it comes to finding meaning, true joy. But wait; there’s more. You also receive the added benefit of positively impacting the world around you and even improving your health. Who knew?