Why Essena O’Neill’s Breakdown Matters To Parents Everywhere

essena oneill

With over a million fans and followers across social media, Australian teen Essena O’Neill was a bonafide social media star. She made money from YouTube videos, Instagram posts, as well as modeling and other freelance work she was able to secure due to her online popularity. But at the end of October she started deleting many of her over-2,000 photos from Instagram and re-captioning the remainder. She was exposing what she said was the “ugly truth” behind social media – that it’s all staged and often done on behalf of a brand.

While I do spend a great deal of my work talking about and educating people about the need for disclosure – and not just because it’s the law in the US, EU, and many other countries – this post isn’t about disclosure. I’ll discuss that issue on my other website. This post is about being a parent of an almost teen girl and how do I prevent this from happening to my child. Essena may now be 19 and have been “instafamous”, but she represents our kids. Our everyday kids who post on social media and watch, comment, fave, like, and ‘heart’ any number of social media accounts. We may follow our friends with their 65 other followers, and our kids do that too (although they and their friends have many more followers). However, the bulk of their impressions are coming from people who are social media “famous”. People like Ms. O’Neill.

The difficulty of parenting in the age of social media is that our kids are exposed to much more that we don’t see. Our parents may not have known exactly that we were looking at certain magazines or sneaking in to see movies or watching videos with our friends we knew we shouldn’t have been seeing. And while we may have wanted to believe they were clueless of what we were doing, they weren’t. The outlets for us to get information were the same as our parents. We weren’t bombarded with advertorial, product placement, sponsored content, and other types of subtle marketing that kids today must navigate. Which is why Essena O’Neill’s very public departure from social media is a bit of a wake-up call for parents.

Ms. O’Neill began on social media when she was 16. She quickly amassed 50,000 followers on Instagram posting photos of herself at the beach, wearing bikinis, showing herself ‘going to the gym’, etc. She is slender, beautiful, and lives in Queensland, Australia. Life was good. Then she found out brands would send her swimwear to ‘model’ and photograph for Instagram. Brands would pay her to do this. And she began down the road of using her social media platform for business. Instead of just being a 16-year old girl looking for people to validate her beauty, she became a shill for brands. She knew what she was doing – getting paid for posting photos that promoted a brand. But most of her followers – many, teen girls like herself – don’t.

So why does this matter to us? As parents, especially those of us with tween and teen girls, we work very hard to give our kids a solid foundation and healthy self-esteem. We spend hours making sure our kids aren’t bullied, or bullies. We read article after article about how to spot eating disorders in young girls. Our Facebook is filled with friends warning us about the latest predatory tricks of social media networks. We set up parental control, monitor texts, and ask a lot of questions.

But we don’t tell our kids that social media is another form of marketing and advertising. We likely assume they know that. We don’t tell our kids that those photos of their favorite celebrity are likely ads disguised as casual conversation. Because we don’t want to seem cynical. We’re not sure how to explain that the YouTuber they watch may be getting paid to talk about certain video games or makeup or clothing brands. How do you tell your kids that everything they read and see online may really be some sort of marketing? Even though they’re researching and doing their homework there.

We, the parents, don’t even know if what we’re seeing is an ad. It’s easy on TV, usually. It’s easy in magazines and newspapers, which our kids don’t read anyway. We know billboards are ads, and we inform our kids of this. They see advertisements in the program at sporting events, and from a very early age we’ve educated them on the difference between the ads and the content. But online? I know I’ve been sucked into reading what I thought was an article, only to realize at the end it was really just an ad. And, admittedly, sometimes it wasn’t until I was reading comments that I realized what I read may have been what is now being marketed as ‘native advertising’. If we’re not sure the social media post or video is really just an ad or product placement, how can we expect our kids to know?

And that’s why Essena O’Neill’s “departure” from social media matters. It matters because we’re talking about it. We’re talking about whether this is just a marketing ploy on her part or if she is sincere in her exposing ‘the ugly truth’ behind social media and those perfect posts. We’ll talk about it with our kids and find out their thoughts on what they believe is and is not real on social media. We’ll question more and demand disclosure. We’ll demand disclosure not because there’s something inherently bad about getting paid to work with a brand. We’ll demand disclosure because, just like with other forms of advertising, we have the right to know. And our kids have the right to know that what they see is just marketing and that they’re not expected to have that level of perfection in their lives.

Consumers and advertising watchdog groups were the advocates and impetus for the truth in advertising rules that apply to what some call traditional advertising – movies, television, newspapers, magazines, and direct mail. These same truth in advertising rules apply to social media. But until we’ve educated ourselves and our kids as to what this social media advertising and marketing actually looks like, just like we educated ourselves with traditional advertising, we deserve to know the truth, and so do our kids.

What do you think about the need for more transparency in social media and other emerging media platforms?