Bella Younger
Mental Health

“My Instagram addiction put me in rehab – this is what I learned”

Comedian Bella Younger found fame with parody Instagram account @deliciouslystella, but the pull of influencer culture quickly took over her life.

Rehab, funnily enough, was never part of my five-year plan. Fame, fortune, success, validation. These were my goals back in 2015. In less than a year, I’d achieved them all. In less than a year, I’d also unravelled. My comedy Instagram account, Deliciously Stella, had gone viral, earned international acclaim and made me a bona fide ‘influencer’, able to quit my job as a TV researcher and pursue my dream of being a comedian. I’d been working in food TV and was researching wellness and clean eating in a quest to find the Nigella Lawson of nut butter. It was a struggle. The women I was researching may have looked the part. They were gorgeous, smiley and brimming with enthusiasm, but their vegetable puddings and spurious dusts sounded vile and there was something insincere about their carefully curated feeds. After a day of reading out their captions to my colleagues, I decided to make my own version. I started a parody Instagram account, where I made their recipes out of sweets. I put Haribo eggs on avocado toast and covered my face in a ketchup face mask. In a matter of weeks it had taken off.

At first, making daily jokes and pretending to be Deliciously Stella was fun. I’d always wanted to be a famous comedian, and this way I didn’t even have to set foot in a comedy club. As my following grew and I hit 100,000 followers, I was invited into a life of free gifts, sponsored content, parties and photo ops on red carpets, but my habit was getting the better of me. I was an addict. It wasn’t drink or drugs that were my vice. The reason my Instagram persona had become quite so successful is that I was addicted – utterly – to my phone.

Bright red pixelated hearts were my drug of choice. They fed my compulsion to post and scroll. I posted every day without fail, frantically monitoring my likes and comments, emoji-bombing celebrities until they followed me back. I scrolled on the loo at parties, in my bed, in the middle of any and every conversation. When I couldn’t sleep, I’d scroll all night. I would pull over my car to scroll at the wheel. The more likes I got, the bigger the hit I craved. I was addicted to Instagram roulette – placing bets on my fragile self-esteem. What I was really addicted to, of course, is dopamine.

I had always thought that dopamine was the happy hormone, but what it in fact delivers you is pleasure. While happiness is long term, pleasure is short-lived and the extremes of pleasure all lead to addiction. Pleasure can be achieved with substances, while happiness cannot. By confusing pleasure and happiness, we are confusing two fundamental hormones and two very different states of being. I know now that I kept on scrolling because I couldn’t get high like I used to. Instagram likes had become my very own heart-shaped heroin.

At first, playing a character lent me a confidence I wouldn’t have otherwise had. I leant into Stella’s identity as a junk-guzzling renegade, but as I started doing press, I realised that everyone thought I was like that in real life. Rather than draw a line between us, I decided to become more Stella. Influencers are, after all, most effective when they are considered to be ‘authentic’.

I stopped going to the gym and always ordered pudding even when I didn’t want it. I was convinced that people loved ‘Stella’ so much they’d be disappointed by Bella. My only source of happiness was the validation from strangers. I was living my life through a screen.

Eventually, I overdosed on dopamine and went bust. I had decided to bring Stella to life in a comedy show for the Edinburgh Fringe. She had consumed my entire life. A bad gig in Brighton led to a panic attack so severe I couldn’t get out of my bed. I was tired of gigging, tired of posting, tired of being Stella. I landed myself in the Priory with RSI in my scrolling thumb, a bipolar diagnosis and no hope of getting clean.

When influencer culture first took hold, people were less aware that being on your phone all the time isn’t healthy, that outsourcing your sense of self-worth to strangers could quickly become problematic. I continued posting daily for the entire month I was in hospital. It seems crazy now but the truth is nobody told me to stop, because nobody knew that I should. And when your livelihood is linked to your phone, ‘quitting’ doesn’t feel like an option. Eventually, it became clear that my entire career couldn’t come from Instagram. I started writing for newspapers and magazines and doing social media for other companies, which meant I could put my skills to good use without letting the likes affect me. It wasn’t about me. Quitting Instagram is both unrealistic and unappealing for almost everyone I know. All I can share with you is what to watch out for and what it taught me about myself:

You know it’s become bad when it makes you feel sad

Once I passed the 10,000 follower mark, Instagram was no longer just Instagram. The app was an oracle, a crystal ball and a mood ring. My followers’ reaction to my content would determine my mood for the entire day, no matter what else was going on in my life. One bad comment could send me into a vortex of doom. I developed an imaginary benchmark for success. More than 1,000 likes meant I’d make it through the day, fewer meant I wouldn’t leave the house.

Social networking does nothing for your social life

The deeper the connection I built with my followers, the more my friendships suffered IRL. Formerly a generous friend and the life and soul of the party, I grew dull and withdrawn, only able to talk about myself and my job in a bid to prove that in spite of how it appeared, I was thriving. I told myself that nothing mattered as long as my followers still loved me. Of course they didn’t know me and for a while my friends felt like they didn’t know me any more either.

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You will forget who you are – but you can always find your way back

The best influencers are those who have clearly established and leaned into their ‘brand’. Authenticity is everything so if you want to be the real deal, you’d better live your brand on and offline. If your brand is being gorgeous and cool, I’m sure that’s great, but I was playing a character who contoured with McDonald’s BBQ sauce and I wasn’t sure I was ready to lean into that on a date. Towards the end, I began to question whether my taste was still my own. Did I like things because I liked them, or because I thought my followers would like them? Did I only like what the people liked so the people would like me?

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The most effective influencers have thin skin – and that’s ok

Before we started asking people on the internet to “be kind”, the inference was that if you wanted to be in the public eye, you had to take the rough with the smooth. That success was a fair trade for trolling or abuse. When I started excessively angsting over bad comments or what people were writing about me, people said that I needed thicker skin, but being sensitive is what made me so skilled at relating to others. It’s what makes me funny. It’s what helped me connect. I thought that I’d shrugged off the worst of the trolling – I laughed when someone said I looked like an Orc on a day trip to earth, but sometimes one too many people got to me, and that’s OK. It isn’t your job to be less hurt, it’s other people’s job to be less hurtful. If you’re on the receiving end of messages that are overtly or subtly critical, remember you can set boundaries by switching off comments or limiting who can see your posts.

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People will tell you constantly that you don’t have a ‘real job’

There must be no other job on earth as derided as that of ‘influencer’. On the rare occasion when I admitted that’s what I did, people would openly laugh, ask me what I earned and readily tell me which influencers they hated. Something I learned painfully quickly is that a lot of people think influencers are idiots. That somebody who talks about clothes and make-up must be vapid and vain. I would rather have told someone at a party I was a flasher than an influencer. I’d be straight out the gate to tell people my account was ‘satire’ and that I was big on Instagram ‘by accident’. I know now that this reaction was down to my own internalised misogyny. It’s no coincidence that the influencer industry is so looked down on, when the majority of influencers are women.

People find it hard to relate to the woes of an Instagrammer

If I had a pound for every time I told someone how lucky I was through streaming tears, I would be a rich woman. I couldn’t explain that the attention made me feel empty, that the pressure to be the laughing, dancing monkey was hurting my soul. The sadder being on Instagram made me, the more convinced I became that I would be nothing without it. I was convinced that there was a magic number of followers and likes that would change the way I felt. It seemed to make everyone else so happy, why not me? If you can relate to that feeling of a gap between who you are and how you’re perceived online, then tune into it – and learn, like I had to, that being someone else rarely does much for your mental health.

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It’s pretty difficult not to compare yourself to other people when you’re presented with a quantifiable means of doing so. Instagram is a numbers game and it’s all too apparent who is getting more likes, followers and brand deals than you. It isn’t modest or humble. It’s designed to incite envy. If anyone you follow makes you feel worse about yourself, unfollow them. Life’s too short to wish you were different and take it from me, nothing on Instagram is as fun as it looks.

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You can have fun in a mental hospital

I spent a month in the Priory and a lot of that time was scary, confronting and contemplative – it was also fun. The people I met there were funny and kind. We embraced gallows humour, gossiped and smoked like chimneys. We had a toga party. In many ways it was the most relaxed I’d felt since I started the account.

I’d love to be able to tell you that all this means I’ve left Instagram behind completely, but I haven’t – I need social media to promote my work as a writer. I love the community I built there. Like it or not, these apps are embedded in our culture. Abstinence was never going to work but unlike many addicts, I’ve learned moderation. I know not to post when I feel tired, sad or needing attention. I no longer check how many likes I get when I use the app for promotion. Now that I rarely post, my follower number drops on average by 100 people a week. I no longer worry about being unfollowed, I just hope that like me, they have found a way to spend less time online. Connection is important, but most of mine is now made IRL. I no longer need likes to know that I am worthy of love. I am free.

The Accidental Influencer: How My Need To Get Likes Nearly Ruined My Life by Bella Younger (£14.99, HarperCollins)

Images: Gemma Day; courtesy of Bella Younger

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