Instagram Could Be Making You Poor

The app is doing everything it can to drain your bank balance.

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Nov 10 2016, 12:05am



Illustration by Marta Parszeniew

Rosie knew her Instagram obsession was getting bad when she started to forget where she was. She uses it all the time for her job as a buyer at a department store in London. Celebrity endorsement for a product, even if it's marked with the hashtag #ad or #spon, can make it a bestseller. Sending freebies to Instagram celebrities is just part of the job.

But when she's stressed, Instagram changes from a work tool to an alternative reality in which to escape. Some days, Rosie spends her entire commute scrolling through the lives of the Kardashians and their model friends. There have been times when she's got so engrossed in the minutiae of their lives, bodies and clothes that she almost misses her stop. When she gets home, she can easily spend another hour searching for pictures of people she can't bring herself to actually follow, sometimes sitting in silence next to her boyfriend. "When I roll over I can't sleep because I have these images in my mind," she says.

Rosie's not alone. Facebook says people spend, on average, 50 minutes a day across its products, which includes Instagram. Advertising came to Instagram with sponsored posts in 2014. Now it's teaming up with brands and retailers to make it easier for us to spend money – by tagging items we can then buy with one click. It's a change researchers say could get people like Rosie into debt as they try to keep up.

I bought an ASOS dress I saw one of my fashion friends wearing on Instagram. I would never have bought if I hadn't seen it on there.

Instagram's appeal lies in the illusion of intimacy and control. This is a dream world for brands and retailers, desperate to strike up a relationship with you in an environment where you, the customer, think you get to call the shots.

In this world, brands speak to us through people whose images we admire. Attractive people with great clothes and seemingly perfect lives become "influencers". People like Pandora Sykes, fashion features editor for the Sunday Times, who has 115,000 followers. "I will never lie about when I've been paid to create content, because that would imply shame and I'm really not ashamed to admit that I'm paid to work," she says. But that doesn't stop brands frequently trying to dictate the terms of their content to her so it doesn't look sponsored. It's a catch-22 of lying to look authentic.

"I follow bloggers and my fashion journalist friends," says India, who writes for a women's lifestyle website. "I actually bought this long ASOS vintage-style dress I saw one of them wearing on Instagram. I would never have bought it if I hadn't seen it on there, but it looked great on my friend and I messaged her and asked her where it came from."

Influencers report lower levels of engagement for posts marked #spon or #ad because they destroy that sense of being spoken to by someone the user trusts. Would India have bought the dress if she'd seen it in a sponsored post? "Probably not. It would have put me off."

That's why brands are trying to get influencers to leave out #sponsored and #ad hashtags. But it's only when these tags are included that users can choose how to respond to the brand that is really doing the talking.

That's vital, says Dr Tara Swart, a neuroscientist and lecturer at MIT, because otherwise your brain has no "second thoughts" before it compares you to the person, which can make you feel bad. "Your brain is looking for a threat," Tara says. "So it will look at the image and think: 'Is this as good as me, better than me or less good than me?'"

A quarter of young women say they are in debt all the time.

Rosie says she obsesses over Bella Hadid, whose perfect stomach makes her feel terrible about her own body. "I don't want to see it on my feed," she says, "but when I just need a little hit of something I will seek these people out."

Dr Swart says the "hit" Rosie describes is likely to be a tiny bit of the hormone dopamine. Dopamine is a feedback signal the brain uses for predicting rewards. At the same time as your brain is ranking you against Instagram celebrities, it is pointing out things that might make you more attractive, like a flat stomach, a beauty product or some clothes. If you buy a similar product, you get a little dopamine. If you ever got your hands on the actual product, you'd get a surge of dopamine as a special thank you from your brain.

If users don't know when they're being sold something, whether that's the surgery behind a flat stomach or the sweater worn by a stylist, they can't choose how to react to it, and the pressure to keep up can become destructive.

Dr Alice Ashby, a consultant liaison psychiatrist in London, says that while perfect, photoshopped bodies and aspirational lifestyles used to be the preserve of supermodels in glossy magazines, now anyone can present an unrealistic image of themselves online. While you think you're competing with people just like you, the image could have been enhanced and its content paid for. "Young people are under a huge amount of pressure about what they're meant to look like," says Dr Ashby. "They might feel they have to have their hair done in a certain way and wear right labels, which can put pressure on finances."

A quarter of young women say they are in debt all the time. Some 39 percent say it is a struggle to make their cash last until the end of the month, compared to 27 percent of young men, according to a survey of over 4,000 18 to 30-year-olds by the Young Women's Trust. "People project the version of themselves they want to show to the world through spending," says Katie Evans, head of research and policy at the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute.

Instagram says it has no obligation to identify sponsored content, and plenty of people will be into buying a celebrity-endorsed dress or a blogger's new Converse straight from an Instagram post. But in the last two years, the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) in the UK has received increasing numbers of complaints about unlabelled advertising. It sometimes takes "informal" action to advise Instagram influencers on the difference between #ad – where the brand pays for editorial control over the post – and #spon, where editorial control is left to the content creator.

Transparency about advertising is even more important as Instagram moves from look-book to marketplace. The ASA could force brands and their influencers to declare paid-for content with a hashtag. Browsers could allow people to turn off targeted ads.

Until then, people like Rosie are trying to help themselves. "I try and leave my phone on my windowsill at night," she says. "I know it's just going to make me feel worse. You get so involved with other people's lives you forget to concentrate on your own."

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