Just about everyone wants attention when they’re feeling sad and lonely, and the majority of teens feel that way at one point or another. That’s why sadfishing—displaying one’s emotional pain in social media posts in order to garner attention and sympathy—has become common among adolescents. Furthermore, increased social media use during the pandemic, coupled with higher levels of teen anxiety, has created more opportunities and more reasons for sadfishing.
Teens are accustomed to oversharing on social media about everything they’re feeling, whether they’re happy or sad. But they tend to very carefully curate the images and messages they post. Therefore, the emotions they express aren’t always completely authentic. Sadfishing is another manifestation of this behavior, whether it takes the form of a teen’s teary-eyed selfie or a few cryptic lines about how bad they’re feeling. While sadfishing posts are considered to be exaggerated displays of emotion, experts say it’s not always easy to tell what is fabricated and what is real.
What Is Sadfishing?
Sadfishing, a term credited to writer Rebecca Reid, is a new word that describes a not-so-new trend. Here’s how the sadfishing meaning breaks down: Social media users “fish” for sympathetic reactions and comments by posting sad stories and images.
Another feature of these posts is that they often leave the reader guessing. Instead of asking outright for help or connection, sadfishing posts are typically vague or incomplete. That’s an indicator that the post may be a call for attention rather than a legitimate cry for help.
Since teens and young adults are the most frequent users of social media, and also the generation that suffers most from loneliness, they’re more likely than other age groups to exhibit this type of social media sadness. But people of all ages engage in sadfishing behavior—including celebrities.
When Celebrities Sadfish
Media personality Kendall Jenner, 24, was called out after she wrote about her debilitating struggle with acne in a post that turned out to be a paid endorsement for a skincare brand. Justin Bieber has posted on Instagram about his struggles with mental health. There’s even a Sadfish Pokémon character, a fish with drooping eyes and a downturned mouth.
Celebrities have an outsize influence on teen behavior and beliefs, in both negative and positive ways. Knowing that famous and successful people go through hard times and feel bad, just like everyone else, can sometimes be helpful for teens as they navigate their own challenges. However, when celebrities focus on body image and self-judgment, shame others, or share triggering stories, teens may be left feeling confused and troubled. And when someone like Kendall Jenner appears to be using her personal story for financial gain, that can feel like a betrayal to teens who admired and looked up to her.
Sadfishing, Social Media and Mental Health
Even when they’re exaggerating what they’re going through, teens who post about their unhappiness on social media are often truly experiencing difficult emotions. In fact, some teens who post in this way are actually suffering from mental health conditions. And, unfortunately, the sadfishing phenomenon may be keeping those individuals from getting the help they need, because their expressions of sadness aren’t recognized as genuine. For example, one of the symptoms of Histrionic Personality Disorder is attention-seeking behavior, so teens with HPD may be more likely to sadfish—and hence their behavior may be more easily dismissed.
Research bears this out. A survey conducted by Digital Awareness UK found that the sadfishing trend makes it harder for teens facing mental health challenges to look for support online. The researchers did in-person interviews with 50,000 youth ages 11 to 16. Many of them reported being bullied or receiving critical responses after posting on social media about their emotional suffering. Even if they weren’t bullied, most were left disappointed because they didn’t receive the support they were looking for. Consequently, posting online about difficult emotions usually ended up making them feel worse.
Furthermore, a large body of research on the links between social media and mental health indicates that simply spending time on these apps can lower one’s mood and increase symptoms of anxiety and depression. Studies show a clear connection between social media and loneliness, as well as social media and depression. Most research shows that both measures go up the more time a teen spends using the apps (although a new study from August 2020 questions these findings). While social media can help teens feel connected, particularly during this time of more limited social interaction, sadfishing doesn’t appear to be a beneficial or productive way to get support.
What Parents Can Do About Teen Sadfishing
Whether a teen is sadfishing due to a bad mood, feelings of hopelessness, or an underlying mental health issue, parents need to be aware and be involved. While looking at their teens’ social media feeds may give parents clues about what how they’re doing, the best way to learn what’s really happening in a teen’s life is by keeping the lines of communication open at all times. Rather than advising, parents can make more headway by being active listeners.
It’s true that teens tend to seek approval and attention from peers more actively than from parents, and sadfishing may be one way they do that. But even when the responses to their posts are positive and sympathetic, the satisfaction is typically superficial and passes quickly. On the other hand, the knowledge that their parents are unconditionally supportive and will be there to listen without judgment, no matter what, provides a solid, lasting foundation that teens can fall back on during difficult times.
While all teens need a compassionate ear, many adolescents may also need education about the effect of their social media posts. They may not realize that the sadfishing phenomenon might actually be preventing teens who really need it from getting help. In addition, they may not know that sadfishing can attract online predators who see emotional and vulnerable teens as potential victims. That’s another reason why parents should make sure that teens understand that the messages they’re putting out into the world may bring back responses they don’t want.
Ultimately, regular face-to-face conversations between parents and children will yield the most accurate and honest information about what a teen is going through. When teens don’t fear being disciplined or judged when they open up, parents can learn what’s really happening. Whether or not families decide to seek mental health treatment as a result, these conversations will undoubtedly strengthen the parent-child relationship.
J Adol Health. 2020 Aug.
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