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.