How many Instagram followers do you have? 100? 600? 1000?
Hunter Bosch had over 50,000 by the time he was 17. He was making thousands of dollars through promotions. Today, he doesn’t even check the app. He forfeited his Instagram fame when what started out as an innocent hobby spiralled into a full-fledged addiction.
According to the National Opinion Research Centre, an independent social research organization at the University of Chicago, Instagram is the most popular social media outlet among teenagers.
With Instagram comes something known as “Instagram Culture”, a whirlwind of influencers, followers, and oftentimes unrealistic expectations.
Bosch knows all too well the downsides of social media. He was 15 when he first logged onto Instagram at the insistence of his girlfriend.
He began enjoying the app when he would post pictures of his workouts.
This is right on par with healthy social media engagement, according to psychotherapist Anne Sikora.
“There is a need for kids to be in a community with their peers, to be able to engage in similar kinds of communication,” she says.
Bosch was posting for like-minded people, and it wasn’t long before his media presence began to garner extra online attention.
“I posted a picture in the Vanier gym,” he says. “I took a good ‘ole shirtless selfie, and I had about 300 followers at the time, but I got over 500 likes on the photo.”
This was Bosch’s first experience gaining traction, which in the Instagram world — means he received more likes on a photo than he had followers.
To gain his initial traction he downloaded an app that told him the 30 most popular hashtags, and would add those to the captions of his photos. And another app that guaranteed a follower for every two people he followed first.
Eventually, his photo was posted by another account, and suddenly the followers were flooding in.
Once Bosch realized other accounts were willing to re-post his pictures, he began messaging other accounts to see if they would do the same.
“Lots of people didn’t want me because they didn’t want a minor on their account, but there were a few random accounts,” he recalls with a laugh. “After that, it was mostly just posting consistently. I said to a lot of people, ‘You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.’”
Once Bosch reached over 25,000 followers, he began to profit. He earned $250 by promoting a trip to Dubai; this was the first of several more promotional opportunities he would partake in.
It was at this point that he finally told his parents about his online world.
“My mom took a more realistic approach to it,” explains Bosch. “She basically wanted to be my manager. She wanted to know what these people want, what I’m doing, the whole nine yards. It’s a mom thing. My mom was realistic, my dad was idealistic, and my peers were skeptical, especially the more extroverted ones.”
But despite the occasional snide remarks thrown his way at school, Bosch was riding a high. At that point, he might have been considered an influencer.
Instagram influencers have many forms, but to their young followers they usually take the appearance of an attractive young person broadcasting every aspect of their best life.
Influencers often strike deals with brands to subtly advertise their products. For example, Kendall Jenner was paid $250,000 for promoting the now infamous Fyre Festival, and smaller scale Calgary influencer, Sarah Nantel, is contracted to an advertisement agency.
For Bosch, influencing looked like a life of fitness, and from that point it was advertising overseas, vacations and complimentary products.
“Now I think about the word influencer and I think, ‘what are you influencing? Who are you influencing?’” – Hunter Bosch
He became a part of the elusive digital elite; beautiful people living beautiful lives, and earning money while doing it.
What Bosch didn’t realize at the time was that he was slowly crossing the line from influencer to addict. Bosch felt the need to always be doing more, so the euphoria wouldn’t wear off.
“It becomes an addiction when it interferes with their participation in school, if they can’t participate with their friends,” explains Sikora.
This applies to Bosch; he would spend all day planning his content and checking his likes, and was beginning to feel as if the “outrageously awesome” person he depicted online was who he needed to be in everyday life.
By the time he got to 47,000 followers, he began to genuinely hate Instagram.
“I would almost get sick when I posted a picture,” he recalls. “It seemed like a major chore. I knew I needed to post to stay relevant and get more money, so I would force myself to do it. This is where my happiness really suffered.”
Bosch wasn’t the only teenager to feel this way. According to a 2017 survey conducted by the Royal Society for Public Health, five per cent of teenagers experience a social media addiction.
The survey shows that young people are saying four out of the five most popular social networking sites make their anxiety worse, with Instagram being the worst culprit.
This is due to people posting their life highlight reel, leaving other users to compare that glitz and glamour to their behind-the-scenes moments.
Sikora notices this type of dread in her own practice, “I have a lot of people in their twenties that have a palpable sigh of relief when they come into a session and I ask them to turn their cell phone off,” she says. “It’s as if people haven’t had a chance to tune into their inner life and there’s a great sadness in that.”
For Bosch, this dread took form in an obsession with getting likes, followers and money.
Finally, enough was enough. After seeking out counselling and endlessly pondering potential outcomes, Bosch decided his mental health was worth the cost of his online fame.
He deleted Instagram in March, 2018.
“It was such a weight off my shoulders. It was a stressor, because I hated it. My life just got way more positive, and I found out that I really wasn’t missing much.”
It wasn’t an easy journey; Bosch put in hours of work with support groups in order to separate his online personality from his real self.
Ultimately, he knows he was lucky to break his addiction when he did. He worries about today’s teenagers, and what the future of social media and influencers holds for them.
“You’ve got such influential people even on YouTube, like Jake and Logan Paul, who have an army of 12-year-olds that do everything they do, and at that age you’re so impressionable. Your level of critical thinking is just not there at all.”
Sikora believes that a child must be old enough to make an appropriate case to their parents about why they should have an Instagram account.
However, according to the National Consumers League, 56 per cent of children aged eight to 12 have a cell phone. Furthermore, the Pew Research Center states that 89 per cent of teenagers use social media.
“I would personally encourage kids to play as long as possible,” says Sikora. “But if you forbid it entirely, I think there is a worry about backlash which could result in addictive behaviour.”
It can be a blurry line to cross, but Bosch has a few words of advice to clear things up for digital natives:
“Ask yourself why you’re pursuing this. There’s a lot of surface level factors that come into play when you want to do something. It could be money, popularity, getting the girls or something. But really, in terms of long-term happiness, it’s not sustainable.”
Today, Bosch is 19 years old and doesn’t have much use for social media. He occasionally checks the app, but it holds no real permanence in his life.
He is more focused on achieving his degree in psychology, and training for the upcoming track-and-field season where he hopes to set a record in the team relay.
Bosch reflects on his social media fame: “Now I think about the word influencer and I think, ‘what are you influencing? Who are you influencing?’ I bet you nobody I promoted this Dubai thing to thought, ‘sweet, I’m going to plan a trip to Dubai right now.’ You have to make change.”
Editor: Rayane Sabbagh | email@example.com