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Ed Ivanushkin/Flickr

The next time you’re on Instagram, take the time for search for Madison Holleran. Tap the top result: “@maddyholleran,” or Madison Stacy Amelia, with “Matthew 17:20” written in her bio. Scroll through her pictures. Create a perception of what this smiling, happy girl, whose default picture shows her at the beach in a black bikini, laughing openly at the camera with her arm around a boy, must be like in person based on what you see. Why? Because that’s the purpose that social media has come to serve.

Social media emphasizes self-promoting over connecting

Since social media exploded onto the Internet, its focus has shifted: connecting with others is no longer as relevant or important as the necessity of self-promotion. Platforms like Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, Vine, and Tumblr are specifically tailored to give users the tools they need to create their own version of reality, an alternate image of themselves that does not by any means have to align with the truth.

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@maddyholleran/Instagram

The cost of being “picture perfect”

Like millions of other people, Madison Holleran used these tools to her advantage. Who doesn’t? That’s why they exist.  On Instagram, her nineteen-year-old life was, quite literally, picture perfect. You see her as a high school track star. A freshman student-athlete at the prestigious University of Pennsylvania. An attractive, athletic, talented, and intelligent girl with plenty of friends, obvious charisma, and limitless potential for future successes. Her account is all vitality and brightness: huge smiles, pretty captions, arms thrown around friends and family, and Philadelphia skyline sunsets that all offer a glimpse into what life must have been like for a beautiful girl who, superficially, had everything going for her.

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Madison is on the far left, with a red bow in her hair. source: @maddyholleran/Instagram
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@maddyholleran/Instagram
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Madison is in middle on the top row. source: @maddyholleran/Instagram

The carefully culled image that Madison presented of herself and of her life on Instagram was permanently shattered on January 17, 2014. She woke up, went to class, and made dinner plans with her friends – plans that she had no intention on following through. Instead, she went to the bookstore and purchased gifts for her family and friends: necklaces for her mother, gingersnaps for her father, clothes for her newborn nephew, and The Happiness Project for her friend Ingrid. She Instagrammed a cozily lit, un-captioned photo of Rittenhouse Square that did not offer any indication that something was seriously amiss, and had been for months.

She climbed up to the ninth floor of a parking garage in downtown Philly, took a running start, and leapt off the building’s edge.

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@maddyholleran/Instagram

Madison’s suicide left family and friends reeling, stunned with shock and devastation. While her parents, sisters, and closest friends knew that she had been struggling at UPenn, they did not know the full extent of her depression. She saw a therapist over Thanksgiving, who told her that she was “battling anxiety.” Stacy Holleran, Madison’s mother, remembers seeing a photo of her daughter on Instagram and saying, “Madison, you look like you’re so happy at this party.”

Madison said, “Mom, it’s just a picture.”

That’s the problem. The operative word in that sentence is “like.” Everyone looks like they’re something on social media: they look like they’re happy, successful, wealthy, outgoing, beautiful, carefree, loved. The list goes on and on because users have the ability choose which adjectives they would like to apply to themselves.

People make a conscious effort to make themselves appear cooler than they are

In May 2015, Kate Fagan published Split Image, wonderfully written article for ESPN that delves deeper into Madison’s life and how her reality was a jarring contrast from the manner in which she presented herself on Instagram. Fagan writes, “Young women growing up on Instagram are spending a significant chunk of each day absorbing others’ filtered images while they walk through their own realities, unfiltered. In a recent survey conducted by the Girl Scouts, nearly 74 percent of girls agreed that other girls tried to make themselves look ‘cooler than they are’ on social networking sites.”

The image-based content that we spend hours absorbing each day, whether consciously or otherwise, is edited, filtered, and stylized to the point that it can no longer be considered the truth. Social media pictures are supposed to reflect reality, like a mirror. The images that circulate from person to person today by way of mentions, tags, screenshots, and hyperlinks are more like the mirrors at Bloomingdale’s: tilted upwards at an angle to make you look better than you actually do. The second problem? We believe what we see. Our brains confuse the perceptions we derive from social media with actual reality.

Instagram was not the source of Madison’s depression. It is, however, a critical and working factor in the message that her memory leaves behind: the pictures that we see online are nothing more than any given person’s highlight reel. No one posts the outtakes. No one talks about the amount of time they spent navigating between three different apps to make a photo fit the mold for a specific archetype. The images on Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, and Tumblr are not the whole picture. They are fragments. And most of the time, those fragments aren’t even real.

Meet the girl who is quitting social media

Enter Essena O’Neill, an eighteen-year-old Australian social media “celebrity” on Instagram, Tumblr, and YouTube. Essena began building her online presence in high school when she “fell in love with this idea that I could be of value to other people.” She quickly garnered a massive audience on both platforms, with more than 500,000 followers on Instagram and 250,000 subscribers on YouTube. People gravitated towards her vegan lifestyle and artful, seemingly candid photos that frequently showed her minimally clothed and in various lanky, gorgeous poses. Her pictures and videos got thousands of likes and views, and comments often expressed sentiments like, “why are you so perfect?!” and “ugh, let me be u.” In short, Essena’s Instagram account presented a young woman who was everything that society not-so-subtly pushes all its young women to be: thin, healthy, beautiful, perfect.

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@essenaoneill/Instagram

But it’s not real. Perfection doesn’t exist, and chasing it only will do more harm than good. Essena is the first to admit as much. She recently initiated a social media revolution, beginning with her Instagram, on which she revealed that her “authentic” social media life, contrary to popular perception, is a construct, meticulously cultivated to sell products or validate her self-worth. It made her miserable.

She writes, “I’ve spent  [the] majority of my teenage life being addicted to social media, social approval, social status and my physical appearance. Social media, especially how I used it, isn’t real. It’s 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 and self absorbed judgment. I was consumed by it.”

“I’ve spent [the] majority of my teenage life being addicted to social media, social approval, social status and my physical appearance.”

Her new Instagram bio reads, “Social Media Is Not Real Life.” Along with an announcement that she is quitting Instagram, Tumblr, and YouTube, Essena deleted over 2,000 Instagram posts and re-captioned all the others with the reality of the circumstances under which the photos were taken. She has since deleted her entire account. She dually launched a new website, LetsBeGameChangers, which focuses on what is real rather than perceived, and on passions rather than physical appearances.

The real truth? Essena spent hours on the sand waiting for the perfect lighting to get that oh-so-natural beach goddess photo. She wore various dresses and pieces of clothing because she was being paid to do so. She skipped meals on the days she posed in a bikini to make herself look thinner. She took hundreds of photos, not five, and frequently used three different apps for editing. She felt good about herself when likes and comments poured in.

Here are some of the edits that she made before deleting her account on November 3, 2015:

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@essenaoneill/Instagram
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@essenaoneill/Instagram
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@essenaoneill/Instagram
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@essenaoneill/Instagram
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@essenaoneill/Instagram

Social media took over before any of us had the chance to take a step back and realize what was happening. It sucks you in. It’s meant to be addictive, to keep you coming back for more so that you can continue subconsciously comparing yourselves to others and, by extension, increasing the profit of the companies that throw it all in your face. Because of this, it will likely be impossible to ever entirely close the chasm that separates social media from real life. Moving forward, we have a responsibility to remain aware and alert in terms of how we present ourselves online, and how we allow ourselves to be affected by the posts of others.

Social media was introduced as many Millennials were entering their formative years, thus making them the first generation to fully utilize and experiment with these platforms. They taught their parents and even their grandparents, and now it’s time to educate an entirely unique, historically significant group of people: those who are younger than the platforms themselves. These boys and girls will be especially vulnerable because their lives will not include any recollection of a pre-social media era. It is absolutely necessary that they learn to focus their talents and passions outside of the constructed microcosms of Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter, Vine, and YouTube.

In the meantime, leave your phone at home the next time you go to the beach. Read a tangible book, and turn your phone off while you’re doing it. Download Moment, the app that tells you how much time you spend on your phone each day. It sounds cheesy, but focus on yourself and your own happiness. See what happens, because life exists outside of your Snapchat Story.

For more information about Madison Holleran, visit MadisonHolleranFoundation.