Influencer overload: do brands have a duty of care to their social stars?

The long-term effects of social media on the mental health of its users is a hotly contested issue. As more brands ramp up their influencer marketing investment, it is vital they are sensitive to the demands placed upon their talent.

Numerous studies have linked mental health issues and social media. The Royal Society for Public Health recently estimated that up to 90% of young people are now using social media regularly, and as a result are developing illnesses like depression or anxiety at an increased rate, issues which disproportionately affect women and teenage girls. Furthermore, social media use and its effects have been in some cases likened to that of gambling addiction. In the UK, the NHS has called for social media sites to fund schemes tackling such problems.

The baptism of fire

It is an issue which has gathered greater press coverage of late due to the recent suicides of several reality TV show participants. Since both reality stars and social influencers rarely have media or PR training prior to being catapulted from anonymity to overnight fame, they share much in common. Reality TV participants have likened the experience to that of a "baptism of fire", a description that could not more aptly fit the experiences of many online influencers, thrust into the often harsh spotlight of a global gaze.

This issue was first brought to light in 2015 by Australian influencer Essena O’Neill, after publicly releasing a video detailing her mental breakdown as a result of the pressure to perform on social media. In the video she candidly revealed the pressure she felt under to remain relevant, feelings of being chained to her phone and the datafication of her self-esteem. O’Neill subsequently closed down all of her social media accounts.

More recently, in 2018 we saw Canadian YouTube star Elle Mills post a similar similarly heartfelt video which covered the same issues and pressures experienced by online influencers, citing the constant need for likes and validation as a major factor in the YouTuber's depression.

Earlier this year Stephanie Hegarty of the BBC interviewed a number of high-profile YouTube influencers who have been experiencing similar burnout from their content and have been subjected to public backlash and bullying.

Algorithm anxiety

In the interview, they discussed the continued public exposure and the inexorable nature of online algorithms as their main sources of stress.

If influencers do not create enough content, they lose their position on YouTube, which in turn leads to a reduction in subscribers which impacts them financially.

This modern need to be constantly "available" is having a negative ripple effect across many industries, and significantly in media. Studies have shown an exponential surge in issues such as anxiety and depression in the marketing and PR industries. This ties in with the problems experienced by influencers, feeling that they are never able to switch off from their work.

This trend has been explored by The Guardian, which identified a need to be active on platforms like Instagram as taking a psychological toll on influencers: “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 […] taking a break is considered a big no-no.”

Essential to this discussion is the recognition of the unforgiving culture that currently dominates the social stratosphere. Across Twitter and Instagram, ‘cancel culture’ reigns supreme, with some users making it their personal mission to take down influencers based on mistakes and misjudgments. One only has to look at the recent fervor created around James Charles, an online beauty blogger, and makeup artist, to see this cutting culture in action. Almost overnight the M.U.A sensation lost nearly 5 million followers across his social platforms.

Moreover, after Listerine’s ill-fated branded content spot with Scarlett London, the influencer received an onslaught of hate from strangers online. This is an example of an individual receiving backlash from the public on a creative choice that was agreed with a brand. It was left to the untrained social media personality to handle the fallout.

Despite the plethora of mental health concerns that continue to dog social media platforms, it is important to recognize the work that’s being done to counteract this.

While this online world has led to a surge in feelings of self-doubt and damaging comparisons, there are those leading by example and leveraging the platforms to shed light on these issues. Sedge Beswick, managing director of influencer network SEENConnects, has underlined the culture of self-acceptance and positivity that has in fact been led by influencers. Scores of influential internet personalities – Zoella, Jameela Jamil and Matt Haig to name a few – have leveraged their platforms as safe spaces where the public can discuss and seek support for various personal problems.

By opening up about their own struggles with mental health, they set the stage for others to share their own and create a culture of greater authenticity and transparency. Greater education on how to use social media safely and conscientiously could help reshape how we all use these sites.

Importantly it is in her defense of influencer marketing that Beswick recognizes its nature as "unchartered territory" for social media users and influencers alike. She advises caution and understanding from brands and marketers that are looking to venture further into the influencer space.