Social Media Feels Increasingly Toxic. What Do I Do?
By setting boundaries around what you post, when you're online, and who you surround yourself with in real life, you can strike a better balance between Instagram and reality
Welcome to Tough Love. We’re answering your questions about dating, breakups, and everything in between. Our advice giver is Blair Braverman, dogsled racer and author of Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube. Have a question of your own? Write to us at email@example.com.
I started using Instagram to document a road trip after college, and though I didn’t intend for it to become a career, it’s been my full-time job for five years now. I spend between 50 and 60 hours a week taking and editing photos, responding to comments, reaching out to brands, and developing sponsored content in the outdoors/travel sphere (I don’t want to say too much, but my brand is kind of like #vanlife without the van). I make enough from sponsored posts to afford health insurance and start paying off my student debt, which makes me better off than a lot of my friends. I also really enjoy the creative parts of the job, like composing and editing photos, which is what got me started in the first place.
The problem is that having a big audience has taken a toll on my mental health, even though it’s also what makes it possible for me to make a living. I am an introvert and feel self-conscious when I’m in public because of how often people recognize me, so I don’t like to go out anymore (I have actually liked wearing a mask for this reason). I also have trouble trusting new people, because I have made new “friends” and trusted them, but it turns out they mainly wanted to be friends so I would promote them. The clincher of this was when I started dating someone I thought I loved, but realized after a while that he was more interested in the “story” of dating me, which really hurt me. And it seems like no matter what I post, even the simplest things, there are people who find a reason to criticize me about it. I don’t think I am particularly sensitive, but when 30 people tell you every day that your gums are ugly, you are unethical for eating chocolate, or your photographs are bad, and you can never guess what they’re going to hate about you next, it adds up.
I know that if I talk about these problems publicly, it will seem like I am complaining about the privilege of having a large platform, and also that people will accuse me of being fake for admitting I’m careful about what I post. I know that my platform is a privilege, so I don’t want to complain about it, but it also came from a lot of hard work. And I don’t want to quit, because I see how much my friends struggle to find jobs, even when they have much more experience than me. It seems dumb to walk away from something I’m relatively successful at when I’m not qualified to do anything else, especially right now. I just feel trapped, and I can’t talk about it with anyone without seeming ungrateful.
I worked as a camp counselor after high school, and I loved it. I loved the girls in my cabin, and I loved being the mentor that they needed: patient, fun, always ready to hold a hand or offer words of encouragement. By setting an example for the girls, going out of my way to be the kind of role model that they deserved, I was also setting an example for myself—that I could be someone who helped other people feel brave, a young woman whom little girls wanted to be.
Of course, I am not actually an endlessly patient person, and it helped that I also had moments alone, or with fellow staff, where I didn’t have to be conscious about being a Role Model all the time. It doesn’t mean that the person I was around campers was fake, any more than a teacher is fake when he stands in front of a classroom, or a musician is when she performs onstage. If you were to tell me that your persona as an influencer is fake, then I’d believe you—but that doesn’t mean that it’s inherently fake, not at all.
I think you’re in the fairly common position of being both a symbol and a person, but that you’re negotiating it on an exponentially bigger scale than most people can relate to, which also makes you a target for a shitload of projections and resentment (and, I suspect, misogyny, since a lot of stereotypes about influencers—that they’re shallow, disingenuous, too ambitious, and/or that they haven’t earned their success—are just common critiques of women, justified in a new form). Actually, it makes your influencer self a target for those things, but since the very concept of influencer relies on the intimacy of blurring lines between symbol and person, those projections and resentments land squarely on you, which seems, understandably, lonely and stressful.
Unfortunately, I’m not sure there’s a way to completely avoid that. It might be a hazard of the job, and even if you leave Instagram, it would probably be good to talk to a therapist who can help you develop coping strategies.
Also, I want to acknowledge that it sucks hard that someone dated you for the story. That would be a heartbreaking experience for anyone to go through, and I’m so sorry that this jerk betrayed your trust like that.
If you choose to remain an influencer, there are a few things you can do to make it less stressful in the future. You can try to build more friendships with other influencers and online creators, people who can relate to the weirdness you’re experiencing and will be able to hear you out without (presumably) projecting as many of their own assumptions and insecurities—and you can also try to build friendships with people who have nothing to do with that world whatsoever, and therefore do not care at all, and possibly do not even understand, what your job is. You should also focus on nurturing the relationships you had before this, the friends you already know like you for you.
It may help to create firmer boundaries between your work and your life: having Instagram-free weekends, for instance, or turning off your phone at a certain time every day. It might feel like that means you can’t keep up as much, but remember that you don’t need to do everything possible at your job; you just need to do enough.
You should also think about whether you want to continue being an influencer in the short, medium, and long term, and if so, what you would need for that to be emotionally sustainable. Would it be helpful to shift the focus of your account away from you as a person, and toward something less intimate, like scenery, food, or product reviews? Could you stop using your last name (if you currently do), or even create a nickname for your influencer self that would give you, as a person, an added layer of privacy?
If you decide to leave Instagram, you’ll be in the same boat as many people who leave established careers, and there are a ton of resources out there for that. But I want to respectfully disagree with the idea that you’re unqualified for other work. You have a ton of valuable experience—you’re a photographer, you’ve built a business in a competitive field, you’re adept at working with brands and audiences, and you have your finger on the pulse of social media. Frankly, your skills should be in high demand. That’s not to say that you should jump without a safety net, but that if you do decide to jump, I’m confident that you’ll find a way to land on your feet. And even if you stay an influencer, you’ll know that you could leave—and sometimes that alone makes the difference.