Truly, many parents are having a hard time with their teens. Perhaps most are just beginning to learn how to understand and decode their teen children's real-life emotional needs. Plus, add to this the riot of feelings that the online world opens up to them. Since social media makes up a huge part of children's lives today, it is super helpful to be aware of the word "sadfishing" and how your child can be affected by this phenomenon.
Even if you didn't know the term, it's highly likely you've seen it on your social media as it's not only teens that are prone to manifest this behavior. Selfies with tears in their eyes, or a few emotional lines about how awful they’re feeling, prompting a flood of comments expressing sympathy and support ...teens who sadfish are seeking attention. But how seriously should their family take it?
Too often it is difficult to discern between a teen who emotes on social media in an effort to "fish" for attention and one who is actually dealing with depression and even suicidal thoughts. While some teen sadfishers might be exaggerating their feelings, most likely than not, their posts often do reflect genuine loneliness and sadness.
Another curious aspect of these posts is that they're vague and often leave the reader guessing. Rather than directly asking for help, sadfishing messages or tweets are unclear and mostly incomplete.
How sadfishing came about?
Thanks to writer Rebecca Reid who coined the term in 2019, we now have an official (and modern) label known as sadfishing. It means social media users posting unhappy pictures and stories in order to fish for sympathy from the online community.
As you know, the most frequent users of social media are teenagers and young adults. They're also the age group who experiences loneliness the worst and whose need for belongingness is higher. Hence, they have a greater tendency to display this kind of social media sadness compared to other age groups.
Needless to say, people of all ages exhibit sadfishing behavior to various extents and frequency, including celebrities who post about their issues in order to gain the readers' trust –although the real goal is to sell them something. Such is the case with Kendall Jenner who, in 2019, was derided after posting about her severe acne problem which turned out to be a paid advertisement for a skincare product, Proactiv. Whether her skin problem was true or not, Reid criticized Jenner for the exaggerated claims she made online just to gain attention, followers, likes, or sympathy.
Once the term gained popularity, people started accusing others who posted emotional posts that seemed inauthentic as sadfishers. But the thing is, not every vulnerable and sad post online is a ploy to attract attention. And really, it is quite impossible to tell a post's true intention unless we ask the person directly. In fact, some posts –especially those made by teens– stem from very real issues with sincere intentions. Even so, the online audience might still think they're sadfishing and would slam them.
Amy Morin, LCSW and author, explains that teenagers are still figuring out how to express themselves and might use social media in ways adults would have never thought. "Social media posts may have replaced diaries. Teens are publicly posting about their emotions to see what happens and how others respond to them," she adds.
Sadfishing and mental health
Teens who write about their sadness and struggles on social media often experience really difficult feelings, even when they exaggerate what they're experiencing. In reality, some teenagers who post in such a manner do have mental health issues. And tragically, the sadfishing phenomenon may be preventing individuals from receiving the help they need because their expression of distress is not acknowledged as true.
For instance, teens with Histrionic Personality Disorder (HPD) may be more prone to engage in attention-seeking behavior, making them more likely to be dismissed because one of the symptoms of HPD is attention-seeking.
And research backs this up. According to a survey by Digital Awareness UK, the sadfishing trend makes it more difficult for teens dealing with mental health issues to find help online. The researchers interviewed 50,000 young people aged 11 to 16, and many of them reported that after posting on social media about their emotional distress, they received negative feedback or were bullied. And for those who weren't bullied, most felt disappointed as they didn't find the support they sought. As a result, sharing sad feelings online often ended up with them feeling worse.
Read related material: Sadfishing: Attention-Getting or Genuine Calls for Help?
Is your teen just sadfishing?
For many parents, it is challenging to ascertain if your kids are simply seeking attention or are being authentic and really dealing with a serious mental health issue. And with social media, it's quite hard to see nonverbal cues and the context. In fact, even without social media as their outlet, there's no way to know for sure unless parents talk to their teens about what's going on.
According to Morin, "Sadfishing may be a sign that a teenager is craving more attention. They may be lacking positive attention from their peers. Or, they may be hurting and unsure how to communicate their needs effectively. It might also be their attempt to test others' loyalty so they can see who cares about them based on how other people respond."
All things considered, parents should be cognizant of serious warning signs that their child is in real distress. Clues to suicidal tendencies can include statements like,
"Life is so pointless."
"I have nothing really to live for or look forward to."
"I'm better off dead."
"Everyone would be better off without me."
Other symptoms that teens have higher risk for suicide include deepening depression, being preoccupied with death, losing hope, and feeling worthless or trapped.
Another warning that there may be a deeper problem is if your teen suddenly posts anything dramatic or emotional online when they typically don't. Morin explains, "Parents should certainly be on the lookout for talk about self-harm or suicide as well as substance use. Kids who seem to feel hopeless or helpless may be struggling with depression."
If your teen or a young person you know is showing symptoms of depression and suicidal tendencies, JarvisHypnotherapy can help.
The risks of sadfishing
1- Cyberbullying is among the biggest risk there is when making emotional posts on social media. And this is even riskier if your teen's post is authentic. An already insecure adolescent may fall further into depression, suffer higher levels of anxiety, or become convinced that they actually don't matter when they are made fun of or called names for feeling anxious or depressed.
2- According to a study, accusation of sadfishing worsens a teenager's already unstable situation and makes them even more vulnerable when they don't get the support they need online –especially those already with mental health issues. Being accused of sadfishing when they're being honest can make them believe that no one cares and no one takes them seriously. And for a young person, these kinds of feelings can be tragic.
3- The same study showed that teens who post emotional messages or images are at risk of becoming victims of online predators. Online predators that prey on children will search for vulnerable posts, use those as openings, and attempt to make a connection with them. They first build trust and later on find ways to exploit the adolescent. After a connection has been made, these predators typically move the chat to a private message where they get more personal information –and even photos.
A fair warning! Here are indicators of grooming. Online predators typically:
- send numerous messages in a short span of time
- impersonate a younger person and work hard to gain trust
- compliment and even send gifts to your teen
- ask for personal info including the child's home and school address
- ask to keep the relationship a secret from adults, parents, and friends
- drive conversations toward sexual topics
- find out when your child is alone or away from parents (or adults)
- request for nude, revealing, or sexually graphic pictures/videos
- ask to meet up in a private location in person
Ways to help your teen stop sadfishing
When it comes to dangers online, most parents believe that forbidding teens from having social media accounts or removing their smartphones is the best course of action. Doing this, however, may isolate your children from their friends and won't help in teaching them how to use the internet safely.
Parents should instead teach their teens how to use social media the proper way by teaching them digital etiquette, to be mindful of their digital footprint, and how to routinely clean up their social media accounts.
It's also crucial for parents to discuss with their kids not only how to understand their own emotions but also where to get support when they need it. Show them online support groups where it's safe to be authentic and talk about what they're going through.
Even though social media helps teens feel connected –especially during this period of limited social, in-person interactions– sadfishing doesn't seem to be an effective or beneficial way to get support.
After all, the most honest and accurate information about what a teen is going through comes from frequent face-to-face conversations between parents and their children. A parent can learn the truth about their child's behavior when they don’t feel judged and don’t fear being punished when they open up. These conversations will certainly deepen the parent-child bond.
If a teen, however, is sadfishing and parents are worried that it might be an indication of suicidal behavior, a mental health professional can help discover and determine the real issue. To get quality care for your teen's emotional needs, contact JarvisHypnotherapy today.
Finally, whether you’re a teen or adult seeking to improve your well-being, here are Proven ways mindfulness is good for your Health.