Like many 24-year-olds, Alexandra Mondalek, a fashion reporter in New York, found herself obsessing over social media. Her rapidly growing fashion-focused Instagram account, @hautetakes, was gaining attention, with a little more than 1,000 followers, and it was all she could think about. She wasn’t making money from it yet, but Mondalek wondered if she could reach “influencer” status if she kept at it.
“I was putting too much weight into who was viewing my Instagram,” says Mondalek, who started posting photos of the free gifts she received from designers and PR teams, hoping to build her following. “I would worry about how a post was performing instead of making important calls. I felt a certain pressure to make a brand of myself, and there was so much anxiety in that.”
Mondalek decided to quit Instagram in late 2017. Her break lasted for nine months, and she says she felt better than ever during that period. “I didn’t feel like I had to turn out perfect content all the time,” she says. But after nine months, Mondalek decided to quit her reporting job and go freelance. She felt like she needed to rejoin the platform to keep her work connections. Now, Mondalek says she’s back to procrastinating on projects by mindlessly scrolling through photos.
“I’d be lying if I said I could look at an explore page on Instagram and not compare myself to what I see on those pages,” she says. “Someone is purchasing something you can’t purchase or making connections you haven’t yet made. It’s the rat-race lifestyle boiled down into the palm of your hand, and sometimes it feels inescapable.”
Mondalek is not alone in her complicated relationship with Instagram. As of June 2018, Instagram had 1 billion users worldwide, half of whom use the platform to share and view photos every day. Younger adults between ages 18 and 24 are more likely to use Instagram than people over age 34, and recent research published in the journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture has revealed some scary details about how using Instagram can affect our mental health. Compared to other social media platforms like YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook, Instagram appears to be more taxing on our brains, especially when it comes to the ways we compare ourselves to everyone else while using it. The new study also found that the more time people reported spending on Instagram, the more anxious and depressed they felt.
Study author Danielle Leigh Wagstaff, a psychology professor at Federation University Australia, says people naturally compare themselves to others because it helps us figure out where we stand. She believes that Instagram — more so than any other platform — confuses our social comparison radar. We’re constantly trying to figure out if we’re more or less attractive, smart, and accomplished than everyone else.
“With Instagram, we have immediate access to all of these idealized images, which aren’t always an accurate representation of the world,” Wagstaff says. “People tend to post only their best images on Instagram, using filters that make them look beautiful. We have a false sense of what the average is, which makes us feel worse about ourselves.”
“It’s the rat race lifestyle boiled down into the palm of your hand and sometimes it feels inescapable.”
Now imagine you’re trying to make Instagram your full-time job. Instagram influencers make a living off social media by using their personal profiles to advertise products for brands via beautiful photos, chasing an industry with dramatic potential: In 2017, Mediakix predicted that businesses would spend $1.07 billion on influencer marketing. Often, influencers receive free merchandise or payment for this strategic work.
Jenn Haskins, the woman behind a beauty brand called @HelloRigby (which has more than 25,000 followers), can make about $250 per branded photo. “It really depends on the project, deliverables, and contract details, as well as a brand’s budget,” she says, but a good estimate for most influencers is about $100 per 10,000 Instagram followers for a post. For other types of content, like videos or blog posts, Haskins typically tries to charge anywhere between $50 to $100 per hour of her time.
But making Instagram a reliable part of your income is a taxing process, and it can take a serious psychological toll. Many of the 12 influencers I spoke with while researching this story said they felt tied to a static, inauthentic identity. They often lamented their inability to put down their phones and laptops and said they were constantly online. If you want to be an influencer, you need to interact with your audience at all hours; taking a break is considered a big no-no.
Lestraundra Alfred runs several popular fitness accounts, including @balancedblackgirlpodcast and @balancedles, which combined have approximately 13,000 followers. Influencer account sizes typically vary from “micro” (around 10,000 followers) to “mega” (anything over 200,000 followers); celebrities can have hundreds of millions of followers. It used to be that 40,000 followers was considered the entry point into making a good salary on Instagram, but brands have started to chase micro-influencers like Alfred because of her niche audience.
Alfred works a nine-to-five job. (She’s a social media coordinator for a female-forward co-working company called the Riveter.) She’s an African-American woman living in a small apartment in Seattle, Washington. She isn’t married, and she doesn’t wear designer clothes. Unlike many wellness-focused Instagram influencers, her feed isn’t full of perfect photos of her drinking green smoothies while meditating in front of beautiful walls. She says it’s her mission to provide “real” content, but doing so keeps her tied to Instagram and its stressors.
Recently, Alfred felt uninspired, burned out, and like she wasn’t giving her followers content she cared about. She decided to take a two-week break. Signing off is risky business for her finances, but Alfred says she didn’t care. But during her time away, something hopeful happened: Her followers reached out to tell her that they missed her.
“A lot of people messaged me to say, ‘Without you in my feed, there’s no diversity,’” she says. “I was about ready to quit this whole thing, but then I realized that I needed to come back.”
Wagstaff says research confirms why Alfred’s content is appealing. One of Wagstaff’s colleagues found that viewing content from strangers produces much more anxiety compared to looking at feeds from people you know or people whose day-to-day lives look like yours. The study, published in the journal Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking in 2015, found that keeping your Instagram feed realistic is one of the best ways to combat the platform’s negative mental health effects.
“Follow more regular people,” Wagstaff says. “If you follow lots of celebrities like the Jenners, you’ll have unrealistic expectations of what you should be doing. Instead, follow someone who posts relatable content about their own struggles.”
This is especially true for fitness and beauty content, which Wagstaff says she has found to be the most triggering for people’s self-confidence levels; other studies have confirmed this finding. Still, influencers like Haskins say they feel torn between their need to produce a beautiful feed and their desire to be authentic. Haskins says she’s very aware of the consequences of posting only curated images for her audience, but her livelihood also depends on her posting gorgeous photos that are sponsored by brands.
“I thrift a lot of my clothes, and I don’t have brands sending me high-end stuff all the time,” Haskins says. “I hope people look at my content and feel encouraged, not overwhelmed.”
The long-term effects of social media use among people who create content and those who consume it is still unknown, but Wagstaff points out that these mental health consequences are similar to what’s been shared in media for the past decade, just in a new format: The images we see online and in magazines have always been harmful to self-confidence when they don’t represent an average human being’s body or life. For now, she says, we should remind ourselves that Instagram doesn’t represent reality.
“Follow more regular people. If you follow lots of celebrities like the Jenners, you’ll have unrealistic expectations of what you should be doing.”
“We should try to educate young girls about the consequences of spending too much time on this platform,” Wagstaff says. “And we need to try to find ways to bolster confidence. [People] come in all shapes and sizes.”
Facebook and Instagram recently rolled out a new program to provide users with stats on how much they use the platforms. The activity dashboard shows the average amount of time a user spends on the platform every day and allows users to set notifications to remind them to disconnect. But even with a feature like this, Instagram can be hard to turn off, and that’s on purpose. The platform is literally built for the addictive scroll, with photos of a particular size that allow you to view the edge of the next photo, and other gamified qualities.
“If something makes you feel like crap, unfollow it,” Alfred says of her strategy for managing her own mental health while scrolling through Instagram. “There’s great, uplifting, positive content available on Instagram, but the choice is yours.”
Haskins agrees. “I don’t watch certain YouTube videos anymore, because I’d watch them and then I’d start shopping. And how many of the same warm-tone eyeshadow palettes does one really need?” she says. “If you feel like someone is triggering you to feel like you’re missing out every time you watch their story, or if following someone makes you feel like you need to buy something you can’t afford, mute them.”
Mondalek, for her part, turned off push notifications. Still, despite Instagram’s addictive elements and poor consequences, all three women say they’re not quitting the app anytime soon. Instagram has launched an entire industry that they benefit from, and they’ve made genuine friends through the platform. Haskins says that Instagram’s existence meant she could quit her day job and launch herself into minor celebrity: “Instagram inspires me to do better.”