The Dark Side Of Influencing: Unhappiness, Anxiety And Financial Insecurity

80% of influencers feel burnt out and 66% say the job impacts their mental health


by Emily Jane Hodgkin |
Published on

‘I dream that one day I wake up and Instagram is gone, and I never have to think about it again. That’s my fantasy.’ These sound like the words of an unhappy teen, but in fact I was listening to a successful 33-year-old influencer called Chelsea*. She has hundreds of thousands of followers and was speaking at an event organised in her honour, sipping a wine created just for her at an upmarket London bar. A crowd had been invited to celebrate her, and moments earlier I’d felt envious – yet her dream was for the social media app that made it possible to disappear forever.

Her words didn’t surprise the other influencers around us, all with their own thriving followings. There was a chorus of agreement from the model, the body-positivity activist, the illustrator and the fashion influencer.

I was flabbergasted. I scrolled past images of these women every day. I ‘liked’ their free facials and their OOTD posts, feeling depressed. I wished I could be one of them, and I wasn’t alone: more than half of Gen Z want to be influencers and 86 percent say they would post sponsored content for money. I couldn’t believe I was hearing that these women hated their work.

I’m a journalist and former Influencer Editor, a role that saw me schmoozing with Abbey Clancey, interviewing Made In Chelsea’s Millie MacIntosh and Harry Potter’s Bonnie Wright, and commissioning influencers for exclusive features. I’m also the author of Life of Zanna, a thriller described as ‘Inventing Anna meets Agatha Christie’, inspired by my explorations behind the hashtags into the reality of influencing.

Nearly three-quarters of Gen Z and Millennials follow influencers, even though studies have linked social media use to a rise in depression and anxiety. Unfortunately, the feeling is mutual. According to research, nearly 80 percent of influencers feel burnt out, with 66 percent saying the job negatively impacts their mental health. Factors contributing to this include almost two thirds feeling unable to switch off from social media, nearly half worrying about losing followers and 44 percent struggling with the pressure to earn enough to pay the bills.

As a consumer of glossy Instagram reels, I used to see influencing as democratising industries like fashion, art and publishing, taking power from CEOs and giving it to women. I no longer feel that way – the reality is much murkier.

The more I befriended and worked with influencers, the harder it was to believe the industry was inherently feminist. Ursula*, 30, who posts power mantras encouraging women to ‘know their worth’, told me she didn’t pay young female photographers to shoot her content, but would follow up publications who had used those images and ask them to pay her. I asked if she had bought the rights to those images – otherwise, the photographers were due a fee, not her. She coldly said it was the photographers’ mistake.

One influencer confessed she’d employed a friend to ghostwrite her blog posts, which were sponsored by a brand – but unbeknownst to her friend, she was keeping most of the fee for herself. Another gushed, ‘I can’t wait to have children. Do you know how much mummy influencers make?’

These attitudes make sense when you understand that having lots of followers doesn’t guarantee great or stable money. The Battersea Boot sale is littered every weekend with influencers flogging gifted goodies to supplement their income.

I’ve known bloggers with hundreds of thousands of followers who struggle to make ends meet, usually because their content isn’t easily monetisable (such as art or music), or they’re more principled about the gigs they take. Then I’ve known others with just 35K followers who claim to make over £100,000, rarely turning down a job, happy to create ads for anything from Buscopan to cleaning products. Of course, it’s impossible to know how true these claims are. Influencers who project an image of an affluent lifestyle, or who even sell courses teaching others to monetise their following, have an interest in tweaking the numbers.

There is a tense relationship between creators and the social media platforms themselves. Sex educators and body positivity activists sometimes find their accounts ‘shadowbanned’ and posts hidden, often with opaque reasoning, in a manner that can affect their reach and therefore their income.

Black model Nyome Nicholas-Williams (@curvynyome) successfully took on Instagram's censorship policy after her nude image was removed for violating guidelines, despite the fact slim, white women's bodies escaped the algorithm. Her #iwanttoseenyome campaign forced the platform to readdress its nudity policy. Despite this, she claims her posts are still being hidden from her 75.2K followers. What's more, her images for the breast cancer awareness CoppaFeel! campaign were dubbed content that 'can't be recommended' by Instagram. Similar images shot with white, slimmer women were not. Instagram denies that it shadowbans accounts, but it does tweak its algorithm to prevent content it deems ‘inappropriate’.

Battling the ever-changing algorithms, influencers are using more intensive methods to bump up followers and engagement. They have formed ‘pods’ to engage with each other's work. Some pods reportedly have over 70,000 members, all artificially bumping up each other's content.

There are also rumours bandied around that influencing is some sort of escorting pipeline, with former reality stars and other young Instagrammers contemplating sex work in order to make rent. Love Island star Rosie Williams claims she was offered £100,000 a year plus clothes and bags to become a ‘companion’ to a man in Dubai.

Many influencers avoid these pitfalls and bring joy to their followers every day with authentic content. Some whose work I admire include sustainability expert Aja Barber, body positivity campaigner Alex Light and Sophie Milner, who has founded a society for young women to make friends.

But it does seem the industry may be at a tipping point, with the influencer bubble close to bursting. It’s harder than ever to build a following, and those with large followings find they don’t enjoy the same engagement they once did. In a volatile economy, the brands don’t have the same money to spend.

It’s my fervent hope that genuinely creative and inspiring online content creation doesn’t go away. It has the potential to do so much good. But the world of influencing has become jaded and corrupted by greed. The industry is due a much-needed makeover.

Life of Zanna by Emily Jane Hodgkin (Black&White) is out now

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