Sadfishing. The name may be new - but the phenomenon of fishing for sympathy online (and off) is anything but.
When 24-year-old media personality Kendall Jenner tweeted about her “debilitating” struggle with acne, she garnered sympathy from legions of her 28.8 million followers. Then it turned out her post was a thinly veiled paid endorsement for a skincare brand. Oops.
The backlash was swift, resulting in a rash of accusations that Jenner had been “sadfishing”: exaggerating emotional pain in order to attract sympathy, attention and/or - in this case at least - profit.
The incident brought new scrutiny to an old problem, but one that social media has increasingly aggravated. Recent research shows troubled young people are increasingly looking for solace online - and increasingly less likely to find it.
That was a key finding of a study commissioned by the UK-based Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) as part of its Tech Control campaign, based on data from more than 50,000 young people across various types of schools.
How social media changes everything
As human beings, we all long for connection. And when we’re facing hard times, it’s perfectly natural to seek reassurance that others get it, that they feel our pain.
But when young people channel that primal need for empathy and understanding through their social media feeds - instead of confiding to mum and dad or trusted friend or counsellor - it can make a difficult situation much, much worse.
“Sadfishing” is a very real thing. Celebrities do it. Teens do it. Even mums and dads who ought to know better sometimes do it.
Celebrities do it. Teens do it. And even mums and dads who ought to know better sometimes do it.
The problem is, on a social media platform, it’s simply impossible to tell the difference between attention-seeking (sadfishing) and authentic vulnerability (simply being sad and admitting it).
And for young social media users, both are problematic in different ways, say experts.
Why kids sadfish
Kids who engage in sadfishing are more likely to have low self-esteem and to suffer from loneliness - or, at the other end of the spectrum, they may veer towards narcissism and the desire to manipulate others.
But, for vulnerable kids, the strategy is likely to backfire. Most report feeling worse after exposing even genuine negative feelings online - where, instead of sympathy and understanding, they may be greeted with bullying accusations of sadfishing.
Experts note that young people with a diagnosis of histrionic personality disorder are especially likely to engage in attention-seeking behaviours like sadfishing. Such kids have a high need for approval, they’re dramatic, they exaggerate and they yearn for appreciation.
And if that sounds like a typical teenager to you - well, draw your own conclusions.
The worst-case scenario is that sadfishing can actually make troubled kids more vulnerable to grooming by predators, who use comments that cry out for emotional support as an invitation to zero in and gain trust.
The Tech Control study cited an example in which a Year 9 girl, who discussed her depression on social media, was targeted by a predator.
“He responded to her post and built up a connection with her by sharing his similar personal experiences,” the report said.
“They had never met face-to-face but fortunately she ended the relationship when she discovered he was much older than he claimed he was and was pressuring her to send him explicit images of herself.”
But it's not all bad news
Family Zone cyber expert and clinical psychologist Jordan Foster notes that sharing feelings online can have an upside too. "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.
"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."
What parents need to know
Cyber experts agree that the key takeaway for parents is involvement, involvement, involvement.
Now more than ever, parents need to be interested in and aware of their children's digital lives. Communication in the form of open, blame-free conversations and regular sharing of concerns is critical.
So is the sensitive use of parental controls to manage screen-time, especially during the hours between 10 pm and 2 am, when children are especially vulnerable.
"The most important things for parents to know," advises Foster, "is that the greatest protective factor that a young person can have when faced with negative emotional or 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."
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