When my twin daughters were halfway through sixth grade, we started a shared Instagram account under our dog’s name. The three of us could post photos of our pet, and my girls could also do what they truly wanted, which was to follow their friends, many of whom had been on Instagram for a year or two already. More importantly, I could see everything that was going on to ensure that our first foray into social media was as safe as possible.
As their friends list grew, I watched one particular girl post photos and videos of herself crying. She often talked about feeling left out or sad because of something that happened at school. Sometimes 40 or 50 tweens would respond with messages like, “We love you so much, you are so beautiful!” or “Come on BFF, you’re gorgeous!” Other times, she would take it down a few minutes later.
The posts unnerved me as a mom. When I asked my young daughters about it, they were unsure. “Mom, she seems fine in school. She never cries and acts totally normal.”
Seeing that young girl’s posts was our first experience with the ongoing phenomenon known as sadfishing.
“Sadfishing is a relatively new term coined by writer Rebecca Reid in January 2019,” says Dr. Elizabeth Milovidov, a law professor and founder of DigitalParentingCoach.com.
“Sadfishing is the act of posting sad, sensitive, or emotional things on social media to fish for sympathy and get attention.”
Reid coined the word after famed influencer Kendall Jenner teased her followers with an atypical plain photo saying she was finally ready to share her secret. Her followers lost their minds with anticipation. It ended up being a marketing partnership with a skincare provider about her former acne flare-ups, and many were upset with this emotional clickbait.
While celebrities may use sadfishing to boost their social media accounts, it can be confusing for parents if they see their children or friends engaging in this type of behavior. Who is seeking attention, and who is crying for help?
Monitor and Communicate
“If you’re worried your kid is sadfishing, be sure you’re following them on any social media platforms they have, which also means keeping an eye out for any FINSTAs—secondary Instagram pages that kids keep more exclusive,” says Jordan Bissell, digital communications manager at Bark, an online parental monitoring tool. Make a family rule that if your teen wants to have social media accounts, they must let you follow them.
As with any issue, online or IRL (in real life), the best defense is a good offense. Parents should have constant conversations about safe and healthy digital activity, and they should consistently monitor their child’s behavior both online and in real life. If you notice a sudden change in your kid’s behavior, do not write it off solely as teenage angst.
If you catch your child sadfishing—or doing anything online that concerns you—resist the urge to freak out and punish them, says Milovidov. Whatever the issue, your teen needs to know that they can come to you when they are in trouble.
To determine whether your kid is looking for “likes” or truly in distress, compare their posts to what you see at home.
“If, for example, they’re writing posts about not getting out of bed, but they’re actually spending a lot of time outdoors, it might be an exaggeration of the severity of what they’re feeling,” says Bissell. “It’s possible for a child to pretend like nothing is wrong when they’re not feeling their best, but if they’re genuinely in extreme emotional distress, you’ll likely notice signs of that in their normal activity, such as lower energy levels or mood.”
Parents should also be aware of the potential targeting of persistent sadfishers by online sexual predators. Harassers and predators have an uncanny ability to find the most vulnerable, and adolescents who do not receive the attention they want may be more open to conversations from strangers.
“The responses to sadfishing can damage already fragile mental health and leave a child more vulnerable to online dangers,” says Milovidov. “As teenagers share their difficulties and experiences online, groomers [sexual predators] can respond and attempt to identify with the teen and offer support, using the sadfishing post as a way to connect with the teen to gain their trust to then exploit at a later time.”
And if you are in a situation like I was, where you aren’t sure if a young person is sadfishing or crying out for help, Milovidov recommends always taking it seriously.
“There is no way for a tween or teen to know if a friend is attention seeking or they are in serious distress. All posts should be taken seriously,” says Milovidov.
“Teens can initially reach out to their friends privately and offer support. Teenagers should also speak with a trusted adult so that they are not handling sensitive issues on their own. There are online support services for young people where kids can call, send text messages, or chat with qualified professionals who can provide immediate support or referrals to healthcare providers.”
If you know of a teen that may need support, encourage them to contact Teen Line: Text Teen to 839863 or the National Suicide Prevention Line at 800-273-TALK.