This week, the internet has been abuzz with news that teenage instagram star Essena O’Neill has decided to quit social media because she feels it’s making her live a life that’s “not real”.
We all know that much of what we see on social media is exaggerated, glossed-over, or just plain fake, but seeing it put so baldly by someone who seemed to have it all is still shocking. There must have been hundreds of teenage girls who looked at her life and felt like their own was worthless in comparison – and the comparison they were making was just a lie.
God knows we’ve all done it. I’ve spent hours lying awake scrolling through the instagrams of glamorous teenage celebrities wishing that my life was more interesting, and feeling rubbish about myself because my photos didn’t look like that, my fun didn’t look as fun. I even did it on holiday, feeling jealous and miserable because I didn’t have the toned body necessary to really sell that perfect life.
How did we end up like this? I’ve been told my whole life that “comparison is the enemy of joy” and it’s true. I was really happy with my old house, until I spent hours on rightmove.com thinking about how much nicer other houses were. Why couldn’t I just be happy with what I had?
I’ve envied people’s holidays, dress size, relationships, jobs, everything. But you never really know what’s going on in someone else’s life. When I was a student at Durham, people constantly told me that I must have it all: I was young, at one of the best universities in the country, and my whole life was ahead of me. Friends back home who hadn’t gone to university kept telling me how jealous they were that I’d escaped my parents, didn’t have to work a dead-end job, and how fun all my nights out looked on facebook.
But that wasn’t the whole story. Yes, going to Durham was a brilliant experience which I will treasure forever. It was also incredibly hard: the work was difficult, and I was a long way away from my family and my support network. When my grandfather died in my second year, the 300 miles between Durham and South London felt enormous, and I felt completely alone. That feeling didn’t go away for months. But it’s hard to talk about things like that on social media, hard to break the code that says everything has to be happy and perfect all the time, otherwise you are in some way failing. Perfection is the goal everyone’s aiming towards – and when admiration from friends and strangers keeps pouring in, sometimes it feels like it’s all you have. It’s incredibly isolating.
So next time you find yourself scrolling on instagram getting more and more unhappy, put down your phone. You don’t know what lengths those people went to to get that perfect picture. You don’t know how much of their life they’ve felt lonely, or sad, or ugly, or boring. You don’t know how much of their time they spend working in Starbucks, or a call centre, or as an admin assistant at a local solicitor, just to get by like everybody else.
And if you think that you need what they have to be happy – you’re wrong. Losing 30lbs won’t make you happy, becoming rich won’t make you happy. Happiness is found when you’re content with yourself, with who you are and what your situation is “that’s when you’re the proud owner of all money can’t buy”. It’s time to stop comparing our real life view in the mirror to the airbrushed portrait of social media. It’s not real; we are all chasing phantoms.