You might just have got your head around catfishing — and now there’s another type of online fishing to contend with. But it’s worth being aware of, for your kid’s safety. The exact origins of the term are unclear, but it’s hardly surprising that it relates to one of the members of the most influential social media family of today. In January, Kris Jenner sent her Instagram followers into a spin by teasing that her daughter Kendall was about to reveal her “most raw story” of the year. The following day, fans (on Twitter this time) learned the truth when Jenner shared her “debilitating” struggle with acne to promote the skincare brand Proactiv.
To say that this was an anticlimax is an understatement (although Jenner certainly earned her Proactiv paycheck; she got pimple cream on everybody’s radar). Someone, somewhere, accused her of “sadfishing”: making exaggerated claims about emotional problems to attract sympathy, attention and followers.
I don’t imagine Jenner’s lost too much sleep over the accusations; she’s sure to have dealt with worse. But the sadfishing label caught on, and lots of regular, non-rich-and-famous young people out there have had to deal with the fallout. A recent Digital Awareness UK (DAUK) report, based on face-to-face interviews with 50,000 schoolchildren, says accusations of sadfishing is damaging teenagers’ self-esteem and leading to bullying. One student told researchers that he used Instagram to share his feelings when he was feeling down due to problems at home. “I got a lot of people commenting on and ‘liking’ my post but then some people said I was sadfishing the next day at school for attention,” he revealed.
“We’re concerned about the number of students who are bullied for sadfishing,” said the report.
As a parent, that’s at the root of my own personal concerns about sadfishing. Some people who share their problems online are genuinely looking for help — not more ‘likes’ or followers. So who decides who deserves comfort, empathy and support and who doesn’t? In other words, by being too quick to label someone as a sadfish, aren’t we running the risk of making a vulnerable young person feel even worse?
That danger certainly exists, says Casie Hall, outpatient psychotherapist and wellness program manager and board member for Innocent Lives Foundation, a non-profit organization that uncovers anonymous child predators and works closely with law enforcement to help bring them to justice.
“Social media and text in general leaves a lot up to interpretation and the filter of a particular reader,” said Hall. “We are able to place our judgments, biases and feelings about something over what we read, almost like giving it a tone, a voice. This can become problematic and push someone further down when they are already feeling low. This is, in part, why skills of being able to ask for what one needs and communicate directly and clearly about emotions is critical. Part of being healthy and well is the ability to identify when your system needs something, put a label on it, and ask supports and resources around you for what you need directly. That could be time, space, understanding, a listening ear, feedback, or not.”
The online world is vast, and there’s no doubt that it can be a place to find comfort — there’s bound to be someone out there who gets what you’re going through, whatever it is.
“Sadfishing fills a perceived need,” said Hall. “I am hurting, I need support and attention but don’t really want to talk about it or directly seek it. I will post something vaguely or not so vaguely sad, and if I get likes, messages of support or comments, that means people do care, I am seen, and feel heard. We all have a desire to be seen and heard, and also, it is really hard and very vulnerable to ‘open up’ about our struggles. ‘Sadfishing’ seems to be fulfilling the need to garner support/attention without having to share too deeply or directly connect with anyone.”
I’d venture that this shouldn’t be labeled as sadfishing at all. It’s simply an attempt to reach out. It’s not dropping hints about a “raw story” as part of a digital marketing campaign for a multi-million dollar skincare brand. And anyone who’s brave enough to reach out should be applauded, not accused of being an attention-seeker. Of course, so-called sadfishers don’t always have good intentions — and some have very bad ones.
“Predators use many manipulative tactics to groom victims online, and this can certainly include sadfishing as they keep up with the latest online trends among teens and are often very adept at mimicking their language and behavior,” warned Chris Hadnagy, founder and executive director of Innocent Lives Foundation. “We can also expect that predators will look for these kinds of posts and try to make connections with vulnerable teens who may be easier to exploit. They use the information shared to gain their trust and get them to open up, once the connection is made, they usually encourage the conversations be moved to a private chat where they will continue to look for ways to solicit personal information/images, etc.”
The very nature of digital communication makes it tricky to figure out what’s real and what’s fake, so how do we tell the difference between real sadfishing (or simply a genuine search for solace or support) and predatory sadfishing?
Hadnagy recommends that parents watch for — and talk to their kids about — what happens next, i.e. a predator uses sadfishing as the initial bait in order to build trust and an emotional connection with the child. From this point onward, they will use standard online grooming techniques in order to manipulate the child and establish a ‘relationship’ which they will then use to exploit them.
Six indicators that an online “friend” is trying to groom your child are:
- The person sends a lot of messages (almost compulsively) over a short period of time
- They ask your child to keep the relationship a secret
- They frequently ask your child for personal information, such as where they live
- They try to find out when your child is alone or away from you
- The conversations are gradually steered toward sexual themes
- They eventually solicit revealing, nude or sexually explicit photos, videos or live streams from your child
For parents with teenagers who’re increasingly craving more autonomy both off- and online, it can be difficult to strike a balance between protection and privacy. The gut reaction may be to cut your teen off from social media apps or install spyware on their devices to track their every move and message, but this doesn’t work, and can undermine your relationship with your child, says Hadnagy. “It’s very important to establish a trusting relationship so your child feels comfortable coming to you should they ever encounter something online that makes them uncomfortable or suspicious,” he said. “The best thing you can do is talk. Explain the dangers posed by online predators. Let them know how easy it is to be tricked and manipulated by one of these people. And, most importantly, let them know that no matter what happens, they can always come to you for help.”
And if your child has been accused of sadfishing, this is the time to remind them that not everyone online is going to be able to offer helpful feedback and that for every opinion you see, there are tens of thousands that you don’t, says Hall. “It’s important to not put all the weight into feedback being received by other people, online or not,” she added. “Tuning into you and your needs and learning how to validate from within is not only freeing and wildly healthy, it is also protective against feeling burdened by the millions of opinions that await you online.”
But above all that, look at what your child has posted. Figure out how you (or other people in real life) can give them the support they’re seeking on social media. If they know they have an open, honest space to communicate in the home, or with friends or a therapist, they might not feel as if they have to share their worries online.