The first time I heard the term “Influencer” was at a crowded restaurant a few years ago. It was 10 PM on a Thursday night when my friends and I walked in. As college students, we enjoyed leaving the dining hall every couple of weeks to visit some of the trendy venues we saw on social media, and there was something exciting about being somewhere too dark to read the menu.
“Look who’s at that table,” my friend whispered to me as we walked through the restaurant. Across the room, I spotted a familiar face from my Instagram feed — a young woman I had been following for a few months who had become a popular name around our little corner of New York. After a quick debate, my friends and I approached the Instagrammer’s table, introduced ourselves as fans, and giggled as we returned to our seats. “I can’t believe we just did that,” I smirked.
At the end of the night, our waiter approached us with a surprise: An adorable s’mores dessert in a mason jar. “I was told to bring this to you guys from The Influencer,” he told us, placing the glass jar on the table. We looked at each other, completely puzzled. “She sent this to us?” I asked. The waiter nodded and walked away, and I was suddenly nauseated by the complimentary dessert. I felt like I’d just found out the Wizard of Oz was an average man behind a curtain, calling himself a wizard. I turned to my friend. “What’s an… influencer?”
A recent survey administered by the Pew Research center revealed that out of the 95% of young adults who have smartphones, 88% of them use social media regularly, and 45% say that they are online “almost constantly.”
It’s not groundbreaking news that teens are addicted to social media, just like it’s not groundbreaking news that this level of use isn’t always “healthy” for us. More and more studies reveal ties between social media use and symptoms of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, and dysmorphic body image patterns among young adults—and with the recent spate of celebrity suicides, we are reminded that mental health is not an issue to be overlooked.
It’s also probably not surprising that as a nineteen-year-old, I was pretty fixated on social media—specifically, the Instagram wellness scene. As a fitness enthusiast and a healthy eater, I actually took pride in how many wellness influencers and “fit gurus” I followed. Day after day, I would obsessively scroll through my feed, admiring the collagen-infused homemade cashew milk, the toned abs paired with pastel pink leggings, the perfectly frothed matcha tea placed on a pretty marble table, or even the “no days off” post, illustrated with a sports bra.
As consumers of an edited highlight reel, where is the line between the mindless scrolling and the subconscious comparing that is often damaging to our mental health? While we stare at the finely-tuned and tweaked versions of strangers’ lives, we have to ask ourselves: When does the influencer become a bad influence?
In the fifties, it was cheerful, dainty women on the cover of Good Housekeeping who influenced a generation, keeping a slim figure to find a suitor for marriage and live the dream of being a dutiful housewife. In the eighties, it was Jane Fonda, the fit entrepreneur who created a brand and showed women that you could achieve the perfect feminine figure from the comfort of your own living room.
“It’s not new for women to be held to unrealistic beauty standards,” explains Virginia Sole-Smith, author of The Eating Instinct: Food Culture, Body Image and Guilt in America, out this fall. “The average teenager growing up in the nineties read women’s magazines that told girls that their body is their value, but today, it’s just constant. Every time you’re going to check what your friends are doing on social media, there’s this total influx of all of these influencers pitching products, pitching their lifestyles, and painting unrealistic images of what a healthy lifestyle looks like.”
That constant flow is part of what made my following habits so toxic. And while tech companies like Apple with its new Live Different initiative, Google with their “digital wellbeing” features, and Instagram with their promotion of time well spent can all help with that, I still think it’s tough to set healthy boundaries.
Even as algorithms change and users become more aware of the time spent in front of screens, the quality of the time you spend online can still have effects on your mental health and self-image. “Time spent on social media alone does not appear to cause problems with mental health or body image,” explains Dr. Christopher Ferguson, psychology professor at Stetson University. “What we do find, is what you do on social media, can be predictive of mental health outcomes, and can lead to negative social comparison.”
It didn’t occur to me that my feed was affecting my mental state until one day, when a friend of mine glanced over at my phone and saw that I was watching a popular blogger working out on an Instagram story. “I had to unfollow all those healthy people,” she said. “They were making me feel terrible about myself.”
I had never realized that all my scrolling (and the resulting comparisons I’d make between my own figure and those I saw on my phone) was taking a toll on my well-being, but my friend’s comment struck a chord. Would I feel any different if I stopped watching others’ lives and just lived my own instead? If I actively avoided being bombarded by these beacons of health, would I have less anxiety about skipping a workout, or enjoying occasional junk food—or looking different than the women on my feed?
That night, I scrolled through my “Following” list, took a deep breath, and started hitting the “unfollow” button. I made a rule for myself: If the person’s posts didn’t add something positive to my life, they were removed from my feed. I called it my Social Media Spring Cleaning.
It’s been a couple years since my initial Spring Cleaning and I still swear by the liberating benefits of the “unfollow” button (“Mute stories” is a great tactic, too!). I’m not claiming to have found anything revolutionary, but perhaps small steps like this could be one real way to improve self-image (and the resulting anxieties). “We can curate our feeds to follow more diverse people and more body-positive influencers,” Sole-Smith says, admitting this is something she practices herself. “As I make more of an effort over time to be thoughtful about who I follow, I spend less time obsessing about my own body because I’m not constantly being invaded by all these images that really get into our brains.”
The waist-trimming diet dominated print advertisements in the late fifties, while Fonda’s purple leotard and pulsing leg lifts filled the television screens of women in the eighties. But while we may look back and laugh at the vintage diet ads and outdated standards of the past, are we overlooking the existing messages, disguised as innocent #Motivation, #CleanEating, or #Fitspiration?
Whether it’s the amount of time we spend online or the content we look at, our feeds have a way of disrupting our off-screen lives, so maybe “unfollowing” every now and then can be good for us. And while we’re often told that social media is a curated, fake version of real life, sometimes you find a reminder where you least expect it—like in a jar of s’mores sent by your favorite influencer.