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What Parents Need to Know About Teen Sadfishing

Latest study found that young people who are troubled and distressed are increasingly looking for comfort online, but also increasingly not getting it there.

All humans need, and strive, for connection being social beings that we are. And when we're going through tough times, we are naturally inclined to seek some assurance that others feel our pain, too –or at least understand it. However, a tough situation can significantly worsen when teens use social media to channel this primal need for understanding and compassion, instead of turning to Mom and Dad, a counselor, or a trusted friend.

SADFISHING. A term so recent and modern but the phenomenon of fishing for sympathy (whether online and off) definitely is not.

Here's a unique take on empathy, or lack thereof, in our fast-paced digital age: Is Technology killing our empathy?. This talk helps us appreciate the need to empathize with teen children and will make parents think hard if social media is a place of empathy.

The incident with Kendall Jenner where she tweeted about her "debilitating" struggle with acne –which gained sympathy from her 28.8 million followers– only brought renewed awareness of an old problem which social media has been making worse. (Watch: Is It Okay for Online Influencers to 'Sadfish'?)

Is 'Sadfishing' Dangerous for Young People? shows us the pros and cons of this phenomenon. Also watch How social media affects teens’ mental health and well-being, with Linda Charmaraman, PhD, hosted by American Psychological Association webcast.

Sadfishing is very real. Celebs do it. Teenagers do it. Even parents who should know better sometimes do it. The issue here is the social media platform. It's impossible to distinguish between attention-seeking behavior (sadfishing) and genuine vulnerability (simply admitting that one is truly distressed).

According to experts, sadfishing and genuine expressions of sadness are both unsafe for teens that use social media.

Since the concept of online "sadfishing" is still fairly new, there isn't any research currently looking at these behaviors. However, there are similarities between sadfishing and general attention-seeking behaviors whereby a person inflates something in an attempt to attract attention, pity, or validation from others.

Teens who sadfish tend to suffer from loneliness and have low self-esteem, or at the opposite end of the spectrum, they lean towards narcissism with an urge to manipulate others.

This approach, however, is likely to backfire with vulnerable teens. Most people claim that they feel worse after sharing even legitimate sad emotions online where they might be harshly accused of sadfishing, instead of getting sympathy and understanding.

Clinical psychologist and Family Zone cyber expert, Jordan Foster, explains that there can be advantages to expressing feelings online. "We also see that teenagers show more help-giving behaviours online, as they feel more empowered to help and are less hung up on the face-to-face dilemma of not knowing what to say at the right time. Sharing feelings online can be a positive experience for young people, if the audience responds in a positive or supportive manner."

"Where this falls apart though is in circumstances where the sharing is met with a negative or critical response, or worse yet, no response at all. When teenagers express their sadness online, they can feel rejected or uncared for if a response is completely absent."

He adds, "Particularly in a world of social media where users can see how many people have viewed their post, no response can feel invalidating and spark thoughts of unimportance. A critical response can be distressing, and exacerbate the negative emotional experience the teenager was already having."

Talking to your teens about their social media behaviors

It's crucial to talk to your teens about what they think and feel when they're posting something emotional on social media. And, without passing judgment or attempting to fix things, sincerely listen to their response after asking them how they're doing and why they chose to talk about their emotions online. You can also say encouraging things like, "I understand what you mean," or "That sounds really tough."

Try not to downplay what they're going through by saying things like, "Get over it," or "That doesn't seem too bad." Statements like these are hurtful and can cause your child to stop talking and to shut down.

According to Kristin Rinehart, LISW, LCSW, TTS & Director of Behavioral Health at Muskingum Valley Health Centers, "Remember that posting about a difficult experience or challenging feelings can be really empowering for some young people. Just guide them on healthier ways to share their feelings like using direct messaging or posting in an online support group. It's also important to acknowledge the courage they demonstrated for reaching out for help even if social media is not always an effective vehicle for getting help and support."

Cyber experts suggest that the best course of action for parents is INVOLVEMENT. Parents need to be aware of (and interested in) their children's online lives now more than ever. Communication in the form of blame-free, open discussions and regular sharing of worries is essential.

Amy Morin, LCSW and author, suggests, "Parents should have ongoing conversations about social media and sadfishing posts. Parents can discuss the potential consequences, both positive and negative, as well as talk about how to get help and alternative ways to interact with peers."

In addition, Foster urges us that, "The most important things for parents to know is that the greatest protective factor that a young person can have when faced with negative emotional online experiences is their family and social circle. The more healthy and loving support a teenager has ‘in real life’, the easier it is for them to be resilient and tackle hurdles better."

"Parents need to stay in tune with any changes in their child’s behaviour to stay on top of any emotional distress, while offering support and listening ears," he adds.

Does your teen need help navigating reality and understanding their emotions better? Contact JarvisHypnotherapy today.

And, for additional resources to help you empathize with young sons, check out our article Boys and Mental Health.


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