The PR BlogMedia & PsychologyPublic Affairs & The AgendaEssena O'Neill and the Show Business of Social Media

Essena O’Neill and the Show Business of Social Media

Coming of age in show business, social media, and mental health.

Cover photo by Jerry Silfwer (Instagram)

Instagram model Essena O’Neill rage-quits social media in tears.

Australian Instagram model and influencer Essena O’Neill quit social media in a long and emotional YouTube video.

While listening to O’Neill’s testimonial, I felt for her. She describes how she was drawn into a world of superficial acknowledgement and exploitation—where she now battles depression and anxiety.

Please make no mistake about it: the part of social media that O’Neill is describing is show business. For more than a century, it’s been common knowledge that this industry is particularly ruthless.

As a digital strategist and professional PR advisor, I feel obliged to pose this tough and uncomfortable question:

Is this a business- or a parenting problem?

Let’s get into it:

Table of Contents

    Social Media and Show Business

    There are many facets of show business, and we share a collective fascination for celebrities. Some artists go on to become celebrated writers, musicians, painters, actors, comedians, etc. Others go on to become artists of less notoriety. Most end up somewhere in between.

    Social media is no different. As such a vast space, it’s home to all kinds of media. You could spend your entire online life deeply immersed in online chess, funny cat videos, or astrophysics.

    Wherever people direct their attention, there are business opportunities. And so, it only falls naturally for social media to host the show business industry as well.

    Social media networks and their algorithms share the responsibility of creating risky online environments. And we should strive to make online spaces safer for children and teenagers. But as parents, we can’t just wait for that to happen.

    Raising Social Media Influencers

    Most parents would be careful about entering their children into the world of show business. In popular culture, we often make fun of the stereotypical pageant mom, but at least pageant moms are deeply involved in their daughters’ careers.

    If a child or a teenager (<18 years) wish to enter into the world of online show business, parents must begin to understand what this means.

    Raising a social media influencer means exposing your child or teenager to grown-up business life.

    If my son, born in 2014, came to me wanting to start a business, being a business owner myself, I’d be proud. But I’d also be careful: managing customers and money, staying on top of tax law and other regulations, exposing your brand to the general public—none of that is without risk.

    Even if you’re not selling anything at first, you’re still part of the business industry as a social media creator. Managing an audience’s attention can be emotionally taxing for any creator; anxiety and depression are everyday struggles for many public creatives.

    Was Essena O’Neill not mentally prepared to enter the world of online show business? If she had known exactly what she was getting herself into, would she still have embarked on a career as an Instagram model?

    Coming of Age in Social Media

    Being a teenager has never been easy. While society has improved exponentially regarding human rights and material wealth in the last century, being a teenager and coming of age means that you’re socially looking for your place in the world today.

    Even grown-ups sometimes feel the pressure of putting on a show on social media—even if it’s just for friends, family, and acquaintances. Feet on a beach, a tip of an aeroplane’s wing, well-composed daily outfits, gym selfies begging for approval.

    Now, imagine coming of age in the world of social media. A teenager’s social “catwalk” used to be confined geographically, but today that constraint is long gone. That stage has not only become global, but it’s also been monetised.

    The high-school popularity contest has suddenly become a world stage. And peer pressure operates at the speed of light (literally!) across the globe.

    I appreciate how difficult the situation is for parents of social media influencers. Things have happened fast, and we’re the first generation of parents ever to deal with our children entering the world of online show business.

    But the harsh truth remains: parents are responsible for their children going into show business. Whether that business is online or offline is beside the point.

    Jerry Silfwer
    Jerry Silfwer
    Jerry Silfwer, alias Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.


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