Mental Health

Why we ‘hate’ follow people on Instagram and what to do when it starts to get toxic

’Hate following’ is a phenomenon of the 21st century. So why do we follow someone on social media who makes you feel either angry, envious or judgemental, and what can you do when it starts to get toxic?

The first time I ‘hate’ followed an influencer on Instagram, I actually liked her. 

But a few months later, I was obsessively trawling forums discussing her every move and dissecting each Instagram post with my uni group chat. “OMG look at what she’s wearing here”, I’d type judgingly, “why does she think she looks good?!?” 

It became a one-sided toxic-friendship. I’d watch her YouTube videos as soon as they dropped and replay her Instagram stories multiple times, but mentally tear her down at any given chance. Thankfully, I found peace and unfollowed her, but it was an odd time in my life that coincided with a period of self-loathing.

’Hate following’ is a unique phenomenon of the 21st century. It’s when you follow someone on social media who makes us feel either angry, envious or judgemental, but can’t seem to break that toxic bond by unfollowing them. In mild cases, you’ll bitch about the person to your friends, but in extreme cases you can end up wasting hours consuming their content, teetering on the edge of becoming a full-time online troll.

And with so many mainstream Instagram influencers and celebrities currently breaking lockdown rules and travelling to places like Dubai, people are angrier than before, leaving them nasty comments under posts and in their DMs. “Why don’t you just unfollow me if you don’t like me?!”, the influencers often retort back. And that is a very good question, why don’t we just unfollow the people who make us feel worse about ourselves online? Why do we let them live in our heads rent-free?

 

“I think when you don’t like someone, you want to keep reaffirming the reason why you don’t like them and social media is the perfect place to try to find those faults, even if they don’t exist”, says Ella, a 22-year-old from Manchester who admits to hate following a personal trainer from her town on Instagram. “I’m honestly just so jealous because she’s minted, gorgeous, a really good PT and she’s making it big”, she tells Stylist. Ella catches herself watching the fitness influencer’s training videos on a daily basis and scrutinising her form, thinking things like ‘I can’t believe her clients are paying for this’.

So why hasn’t she unfollowed her? “I don’t actually know”, Ella says. “Maybe it’s because I have so many connections to her and my friends all follow her too. As well as being jealous of her, I find her really interesting.” Ella also thinks that even if she did unfollow her, she’d just look her up anyway.

Kate, 19, doesn’t hate follow celebrities as much as she used to but understands how easy it is to do. “There was a time when there’d be celebrity hate accounts that would nitpick on women and it was horrible. I distinctly remember following an Ariana Grande one when I was 15”, she says. “I was really insecure at that age and in some ways tearing down perfect-looking celebrities made me feel better about myself.”

But now Kate struggles with following ordinary people online, mostly women in the same career path as her, and can’t stop comparing herself to them. “I think it’s probably a symptom of internalised misogyny more than anything else. It makes me feel gross inside. I have to catch myself doing it,” she says. “I’m thinking of these people in a negative way, then I feel judgey, then I’m judging myself for being judgey and it’s not helpful to anyone, nor is it particularly kind.” Kate thinks hate following directly correlates with her self-esteem because when she feels better about herself, the feelings of jealousy tend to fade.

Unlike Ella and Kate, 22-year-old Aleesha is addicted to hate following someone she used to be friends with. “It was a classic uni fallout where we both got hurt, but I still find myself on her Instagram, checking what she’s doing on LinkedIn and checking if she’s more successful than me.”

Aleesha is struggling to get over the friendship break-up and thinks that keeping up with the ex-friend digitally will give her reasons to remember why she was a bad friend in the first place. “It’s a very dangerous part of me that wants to hurt me by finding out what she’s been up to. I hope to find something that makes me angry at her again, this urge to rekindle whatever happened,” she says. “I’m still clinging on to be like ‘ha, see! I’m winning!’”

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Psychologist, author and member of the British Psychological Society, Lilly Sabir, believes the reason why anyone would follow someone they don’t like online is because they want to find out more about themselves unconsciously. “When you’re following somebody who doesn’t represent who you are, for example, celebrities who are going to Dubai, you’re going to define yourself by being more moral, and humans do things like this all the time. We even do it when we’re in the supermarket, judging how people are acting or what they’re wearing. Social media comparison tells you a lot about who you are in terms of your social identity and your self-identity.” But what about when this behaviour becomes addictive and harmful?

“From a neuroscience perspective, when we see something on social media we don’t approve of, we hit our self-esteem button through the brain and release dopamine,” Sabir continues. “But what happens over time is that in wanting to release more dopamine, the level of anger and hate has to increase. Short-term, you feel better about yourself, but long term, it becomes addictive and that’s when it’s an issue.”

And it seems that some people are more prone to becoming addicted to this type of tortuous behaviour in the first place. “If you’re already suffering from low confidence, then you’re going to be more prone to exhibiting those long-term hate following, envy following behaviours. Whereas somebody whose confidence is pretty average can still participate in social media hate following, it won’t become a long term envious game,” Sabir explains.

Stopping the toxic hate following cycle 

So how do we stop this toxic cycle? The psychologist believes identifying the triggers and deleting the apps can be a great start. But it’s also important to think of ways to improve your self-esteem. “Long-term social media use also contributes to low self-esteem, so think of things you can do that make you feel good about yourself offline – anything that keeps you from grabbing that phone.”

Shame will often stop people from addressing their issues of ‘hate’ following and seeking help, because it feels embarrassing to admit you spend a considerable chunk of your day hating someone online. “It’s so common, but it ends up being very hidden and secret,” Sabir says. “We all feel these horrendous negative emotions and have shame around them, but I don’t want anyone to think they’re alone in having the thoughts or that they can’t get control of the thoughts, because they can.”

It’s also crucial to understand that humans have never had to deal with something like this before because the internet has given us immediate access to every single person we know and don’t. “There’s no regulation with social media, you can be on your phone for as long as you want to and find almost any information you want, whereas before if you were going to stalk people, it wouldn’t be so easy,” the psychologist says. Plus, social media algorithms will often feed us more stuff from people we obsess over the most, which can perpetuate the addictive behaviours we develop.

It’s easy to get sucked into the world of online comparison or hate following people you disagree with, especially during lockdown, when many of us are feeling extremely low about ourselves. And anyone can fall into the trap. Whether you’re ruminating over your ex’s new partner, old friends, the people a step above you in your industry or complete randomers you stumbled upon through the Instagram algorithm, it seems the answer is to go easy on yourself, because punishing yourself with even more guilt won’t make you feel better.

We’re living in financially precarious times and many of us haven’t been able to do simple things that bring us joy for what feels like an eternity. It’s important to grieve these things instead of zoning in on other people’s lives as a distraction. Perhaps giving ourselves compassion is the only way out of hate following others.

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