The Nuance

The Case Against Following Social Media Influencers

Beyond being a time suck, those highly curated Instagram posts can affect your well-being

Photo: Eaters Collective on Unsplash

Every week, the Nuance will go beyond the basics, offering a deep and researched look at the latest science and expert insights on a buzzed-about health topic.

RResearchers have been writing about the so-called highlight reel effect of social media since at least 2014. The idea is that people tend to post mostly flattering or humblebrag-worthy stuff about themselves, and spending too much time absorbing these gilded depictions of other people’s lives could distort how you view your own.

The evidence backing this theory is mixed. Some of the early studies linked the highlight reel effect to symptoms of depression, while others found that its impact varied from one person to the next.

Some of the latest research suggests that exposure to idealized images — especially those posted by influencers on Instagram — may be fueling the kinds of negative social comparisons that make people feel bad about themselves.

“Many influencers begin as everyday, ordinary internet users, but by producing content that may be based on talent or skill or on disclosures into their lifestyle, they’re able to build an audience,” says Crystal Abidin, an internet and social media researcher with Australia’s Curtin University who has studied influencers and online authenticity. “Once that audience reaches critical mass, then advertisers may work with these influencers to embed sponsored messages into their social media posts.”

Unlike conventional celebrities or paid product endorsers, influencers tend to be viewed by their followers as trusted peers, says Juha Munnukka, a marketing researcher at Finland’s Jyväskylä University School of Business and Economics. This is a big deal to advertisers, because there’s evidence that your peers — more so than strangers or celebs — can influence your interests and purchases. “A peer’s perceived similarity with the audience — their trustworthiness, expertise, and attractiveness — are the common aspects that affect their credibility,” Munnukka explains. This credibility translates to persuasiveness, his research has found.

Even small-time influencers — those with fewer than 50,000 followers — can make hundreds or even thousands of dollars for a promotional post. And while many of them maintain a posture of “calibrated amateurism” and financial instability, much of this is orchestrated, Abidin says.

“Many influencers are millionaires,” she says, “who use everyman empathy and narratives of victimhood. Most influencers peddle in sharing private or supposedly private information about themselves, but various studies show that all aspects of these disclosures are thought through and intentional.” In other words, their perceived realness is in many ways a performance. (To be fair to influencers, the same could be said of a lot of uninfluential people on social media.)

As long as influencers are up-front about their financial connections to the brands they promote, this artifice is in-bounds as far as the regulatory authorities are concerned. But research suggests that spending a lot of time interacting with this content could be harmful to your mental health.

More than other social media platforms, Instagram dominates the influencer marketing game. And time spent on Instagram — and in particular, time spent viewing “idealized” beauty- or fitness-related images — is associated with lower levels of self-rated attractiveness and a greater risk for depression symptoms, anxiety, and body dissatisfaction, finds a 2018 study from Australia’s Federation University.

We’re spending more and more time looking at these hypercurated, beautiful images, and we’re spending less time forming real relationships.”

The authors of that study write about social comparison theory, which holds that human beings naturally compare themselves to others in order to form self-evaluations. But if the others you’re comparing yourself to are styled, chiseled, or glamorous, social comparison theory suggests your perception of your own looks or lifestyle can seem shabby by comparison, says Doreen Dodgen-Magee, a psychologist and author of Deviced!: Balancing Life and Technology in a Digital World.

Social comparison theory used to be talked about in relation to beauty magazines and the idea that images of super-skinny bodies and airbrushed faces could promote disordered eating and low self-esteem, especially among young women. But it may be even more relevant when applied to influencers and the ad-subsidized lifestyle images they portray. The influencers you follow may occasionally post about their horrible hair day, subpar workout, or embarrassing junk food cravings — stuff that makes them seem imperfect and authentic — but their lives probably still seem pretty awesome compared to your own.

“All the work influencers do behind the scenes to build their relatability and to build narratives that are consistent with their audience — all of this is done with the intention to accumulate sponsorship,” Abidin says. Some influencers are transparent about money they receive for product endorsements, she says. But that doesn’t mean their entire Instagram persona isn’t one big ad. There’s even evidence that all that studied perfection can take a toll on the influencers themselves.

“We’re spending more and more time looking at these hypercurated, beautiful images, and we’re spending less time forming real relationships,” Dodgen-Magee says. She points to studies that have tied social media use — and Instagram in particular — to depressive symptoms in young adults. Last year, a study linked social media use — especially image-centric social media platforms like Instagram — with body dissatisfaction and eating disorders among men.

“These influencers are elevated in our minds,” Dodgen-Magee says. “And at the same time, we’re losing the ability to become properly informed by authentic people in our embodied spaces.”

I write about health and science. I live in Detroit with my wife and kids. I’m trying to learn German, but my progress so far is nicht gut.

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