In 2017, a survey of almost 1,500 adolescents and young adults across the UK found that social media use, and in particular Instagram, was linked to depression, anxiety, and a whole lot of sleep deprivation. Basically, it just seems that a constant diet of photos from people who are richer, better looking, and more on-holiday than ourselves just isn’t healthy.
But what about the people in the photos? How are the influencers feeling?
We reached to three social media influencers to see what it’s like to be so popular online, what pressures they face, and how their Insta-saturated lives impact their own wellbeing.
I’ve had the account from 2010, but it blew up in 2013 when I started posting more articulate images and using Instagram as my portfolio. In that first year, I went from 3000 followers to over 30,000. There were articles about me in Germany, Belgium, and France and I was having my work shared over tumblr, flickr, and Instagram.
The problem was that it created a great deal of anxiety and ego-identification problems, something I didn’t know how to deal with at the time. I was suddenly worth something because of this external validation. When I’d post something, I’d instantly get this dopamine rush because of the amount of likes. But then I remember catching myself on a low day, feeling like I needed to post something, [and asking] myself if I was doing it to feel good about myself.
When I’d meet people, I’d bring up my Instagram to get their validation to boost my own ego. In retrospect, I feel they would’ve recognised that, but I was so immersed that I didn’t even realise. And that anxiety doesn’t limit itself to Instagram. It becomes you. You become an anxious person walking around, unsure of yourself. Depression and low self-worth came from losing followers so much that I became addicted to checking who unfollowed me. I’ve since realised that the algorithm has a lot of influence over who sees your content and when, but I didn’t realise that at the time.
These days I’ve learned to disconnect through willpower. I’ll ignore Instagram for a couple of weeks. The clarity I get from that is incredible. It hasn’t controlled me in recent years, but I’d be lying if I said that feelings of gratification weren’t there. I don’t hate Instagram. It drove me into my own photography business which I’m able to live off happily, and Instagram also gave me a drive to put work out there, which made me better at my craft.
Social media has created many positives in my life and if it didn’t, I wouldn’t use it. Being able to connect with young girls, women, men, and LGBTQIA+ people from the Middle East has enriched my life in a myriad of ways, although like anything, it can be toxic.
I get more gratification from people relating to what I’m saying, but at times I feel some pressure knowing that some people find support through me, because I would hate to let anyone down. I try to reflect an authentic depiction of my character and influence people positively, so sometimes I do feel bad posting pictures of me smoking or stories of me being drunk and ridiculous.
There’s also guilt in not always being able to reply to those who confide in me—it can sometimes build up a sense of anxiety. When I meet people in person, whether it’s in a friendship or romantic setting, I sometimes get caught up thinking about the preconceived ideas they may have of me because of the open nature of my content.
I am only human and sometimes I can receive 100 loving and empowering messages and my brain seems to focus on that one rude message, or a degrading DM with a dick pic attached to it. If I’ve had a really stressful day, this can have a negative impact on my mood, but I remind myself that the people sending these messages are irrelevant to my life.
A couple of years ago that pressure did affect my day-to-day, but I’ve developed ways to deal with it. Before I sleep, I turn my phone on aeroplane mode, and meditate for 10 minutes on the beach when I wake up—this has been imperative for my mental stability. We constantly talk about the importance of detoxing the body, but somehow everyone forgets about detoxifying the mind. During high school I would get antagonised for the pictures I would post on social media but I learnt that I’ll never be able to please everyone, so I might as well do what makes me happy.
Of course, going to Lebanese events and worrying that someone there may judge my family for my online presence can be quite emotionally destructive. Strong kinship bonds are at the crux of my Middle Eastern background and despite the beauty in this unity, it can work as a double-edged sword. Everything I do is a direct reflection of my parents, which is challenging when you’re a woman who challenges normative Arab structures. But the positive feedback I receive overrides any sort of discouragement, as well as the clear conscious that I have knowing that I’m not doing anything wrong by my moral standards.
I got Instagram in 2012 when it was still pretty new. At first, I was following all these amateur photography and healthy lifestyle accounts—lots of aerial pictures of pretty breakfasts and that. I remember noticing that all these accounts had all like 10,000 followers and hundreds of likes. I was doing amateur photography myself so I thought to myself, 'Why can’t I do it?'
After about a year, I was already on 3000 followers. Then one day I was featured in an article about Melbourne’s best Instagrammers on the Guardian. Some nights I’d get over 500 followers. Then I got featured in another article, and suddenly I was on more than 60,000 followers. I’d post a photo and get 1000 likes, which felt great. Seeing people be receptive to who you are is just a burst of serotonin.
At first it was great. There wasn’t too much of an impact day-to-day. I just had to be conscious of keeping the account going. If I was out for breakfast, I’d have to tell everyone to not touch their food until I got a photo. I got a lot of likes, my friends and family were supportive, and I even started getting contacted by business to post about them for money. One time, Volkswagen gave me $800 to drive a car of theirs for a weekend and post photos about it.
But after a while, I started to almost feel like I was a fraud. My friends and family told me not to give it up because it was such an opportunity, but I couldn’t help to feel that what I was doing wasn’t right. I remember around then, people were coming up to me in the street. That made me feel strange. I didn’t do anything to get here, and now I’ve got these people coming up to me saying I made their day.
My account used to just be for me, but when I was an influencer, it was just marketing for businesses and staged shots. The way you document your life via Instagram is a way of showing you’re different and your life is better. It made me feel that what I was doing wasn’t very honest. At the time I was also partying and kicking-on, so it felt strange to post about healthy living.
I found that it did all make me feel more anxious. I’ve always cared about what other people think of me, but having that exposure where it’s all about you and how people perceive you makes you concentrate on that. I don’t get as many likes anymore and my followers are steadily declining, and even though I know it’s not real and there’s an algorithm, it feels strange. At the time, it made feel feel like people weren’t interested in me, or I wasn’t as popular anymore.
Overall, I am happier stepping back from something that was making me overthink what people thought of me so much.
Sam is on Twitter
This article originally appeared on VICE AU.