Sadfishing—you’ve probably seen it on your social media feeds, even if you didn’t know the name for it. A teary-eyed selfie, or few cryptic lines about how bad the person is feeling—followed by lots of comments offering love and support. Teen sadfishing is a cry for attention—but how seriously should parents take it?
It can be hard to tell whether a teen is just oversharing on social media in order to “fish” for sympathetic responses, or whether they’re experiencing depression and possibly even suicidal thoughts. While teenagers who engage in sadfishing may be exaggerating their emotions, there are usually real feelings of sadness and loneliness behind their posts.
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. So what should parents do about them?
What Is Sadfishing?
Sadfishing is a term coined by writer Rebecca Reid. Here’s how the sadfishing meaning breaks down: Social media users fish for sympathetic reactions and comments by posting sad stories and images.
Teens and young adults are the most frequent users of social media. They’re also the generation that suffers most from loneliness. That means 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 who write about their problems as a way to gain readers’ trust—and then try to sell them something. For example, 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.
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.
3 Things 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.
- • If you notice sadfishing in your teen’s social media feed, ask them about it, without showing judgment or over-concern. Simply open up a conversation by saying something like, “I noticed your post this morning. Can you tell me a little bit more about how you’re feeling?” Then practice active listening.
- • Make sure you give teens the message that they are unconditionally supported and loved. Teens at this age often seem be more focused on getting approval and attention from peers rather than parents, and sadfishing may be one way they do that. But the knowledge that their parents are their biggest fans provides a solid, lasting foundation that teens can fall back on during difficult times.
- • Parents can educate teens about the effect of their social media posts. They may not realize that the sadfishing phenomenon might actually be preventing teens with mental health issues from getting the help they need. In addition, they may not know that sadfishing can attract online predators who see emotional and vulnerable teens as potential victims.
The Best Antidotes to Sadfishing
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. These conversations will undoubtedly strengthen the parent-child relationship.
Moreover, if a teen is sadfishing and parents are concerned that it’s a sign of suicidal behavior, an experienced mental health professional can help them find out what’s really going on. Contact Newport Academy today for information about finding quality care in your area.
J Adol Health. 2020 Aug.
DAUK/HMC: Tech Control Annual Report