Grown-ish actor Luka Sabbat

On Wednesday, Gizmodo reported that an influencer paid to endorse specs online is being sued for not being influential enough. So far, so funny. The truth is that the minor celeb is being sued for breaking his contract. Grown-ish star Luka Sabbat was contracted to post three Instagram stories and a photo, but only delivered on one of the four. That’s a pretty clear-cut case of not doing what you were paid to do, so it should come as no surprise the company that paid Sabbat wants its money back. But what should be of interest is what he represents: the tame end of a much more insidious influencing economy that operates in plain sight while many of the young people that it targets remain unaware.

Take the three stories that Sabbat was paid to post. Influencers are supposed to (although often don’t) flag up product placement in photo descriptions (eg #ad) but that is harder to do on stories, which are short videos that come without a description and disappear after 24 hours. Sabbat was also required to pose for photographs during various fashion weeks – photos that presumably would show a fashionable, influential man who just happened to be wearing Snap Inc glasses when he was papped, rather than one who had been paid $60,000 (£46,000) to do so.

Influencers can include proper celebs, Z-listers – such as previous cast members of Love Island – and less well-known micro-influencers: people with relatively few followers but who are, nonetheless, deemed to be cool. That last group can include everyone from people being paid to live a fun-loving nomadic lifestyle that, while following their every move on Instagram, make you hate yourself for having a job; to non-celebrities paid in merch in which they just have to walk around looking enviable.

It’s a world in which brands are cashing in by bottling up envy and using it to sell everything from overpriced shoes to fancy glasses, injecting a daily dose of paid-for content into our news feeds without our knowledge. For those of us who will never be fashionable, beautiful or beach-ready enough, it means a slow drip-drip of unrealistic lifestyles and unattainable body expectations that only serves to leave us feeling inadequate, and quite possibly with a substantially lighter wallet.

The anxiety can be all-consuming. I have looked after 11-year-olds who admit bowing to the pressure of joining Instagram for fear of being viewed by classmates as a nobody for not being on it. I have spoken to young adults who scroll through photos before bedtime that spur them on to skip meals the next day, punishing themselves for not being perfect. The impact on mental health is not fully understood, but young people aren’t stupid – and they know what’s happening. They rank Instagram as the worst platform for mental health, backing up the research that suggests that young people who use social media heavily are more likely to report mental health problems such as anxiety and depression.

And who gains from this? Not society, not the young people being flogged expensive treats, not even the celebs who are now liable to be sued if they don’t bother to post on Instagram at the right time. Ultimately, it’s the big corporations who cream off the profit: $60,000 might seem a lot to pay for four social media posts, but it’s a hell of a lot cheaper than a proper ad campaign, which can cost as much as £30,000 for a 30-second slot on TV – and has far less chance of sparking any kind of virality among the young, web-savvy target market. We might like to imagine that we’re consumers to these companies, but we’re really the product – because in the end, what’s even more lucrative to them is our misery, and the desperate urge to spend that it can cause.

Poppy Noor is a columnist for the Guardian’s G2