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Why I'm Warning My Kids About Sadfishing And You Should Too

We’ve all seen it: a friend on social media tweeting or posting status updates bursting with tantalising cryptic vagueness.

I’m so upset right now. Unbelievable. SO done with this. FML.

Oh, the mystery! The intrigue! How delicious. We, of course, have. to. know.

“What’s happened? Are you okay?” we ask. The response? Oh, nothing. It’s okay. I’m fine. I’ll PM you.

That’s if we even get a response. Often there is no response. We realise we’ve been sadfished. The next time we see our friend post a similar update, we are cynical and uninterested. We ignore it, and carry on.

Sadfishing is the new buzzword coined to describe when someone uses their emotional problems to hook an audience on social media, often intentionally holding back details to entice their followers in, or to make the problem seem bigger than it actually is. The desired outcome is to gain attention and sympathy, both of which can result in extra likes or comments, thereby achieving validation through social media.

Sadfish me once, shame on you. Sadfish me twice... (Image: Getty)

It’s a behaviour typically seen among young people, but recently celebrities have come under fire for engaging in the trend -- such as Kendall Jenner, whose Instagram video baited followers into preparing for her supposed 'brave and vulnerable' moment.

Thousands eagerly awaited the big reveal, only to have Jenner announce her “most raw story” to be a marketing campaign with skincare brand, Proactiv. Because having acne is clearly the most traumatic plight the poor girl has ever had to deal with. B*tch, please.

Fervent backlash has been unleashed on Jenner since, with experts concerned that celebrities glorifying emotional and mental health issues for personal gain will undermine those who share genuine struggles, who’ll then be accused of attention-seeking behaviour and not receive the support they need.

"Be prepared to be moved." (Image: Instagram)

Because of this, young people report they are finding it difficult to navigate the balance between authentic sharing and sadfishing -- or what my teenagers refer to as just good-old-fashioned narcissism.

As someone who advocates the sharing of mental health issues online, I had a conversation with my teenagers about what they believe constitutes the difference between genuine sharing and seeking support online, and sadfishing.

They agreed there was a fine line between the two, but could identify the first to be about having an honest, open and mature conversation that invites others into a space where they feel understood, validated, and able to reciprocate their own struggles; thereby creating an online community that can be both healthy and helpful.

The second is more about attention and publicity. It goes beyond both the humblebrag or vaguebooking to elicit an emotional response in its readers, which is harder to ignore or criticise. But the obvious difference is its intentional lack of detail or explanation, causing the reader to have to “fish” for further information yet having no real interest in engaging with others beyond the satisfaction of attention or sympathy.

Young people find it difficult to navigate between authentic sharing and sadfishing -- or what my teenagers refer to as just good-old-fashioned narcissism. (Image: Getty)

While there’s nothing wrong with being authentic online and sharing both our victories and struggles, there’s a difference between sharing a problem and sensationalising a problem, and we need to help our children navigate this difference by talking to them about:

The dangers that come with sadfishing. It may seem like a harmless way to gain some sympathy, attention and validation, but the online world is rife with potential groomers waiting to stalk their prey and there’s no easier way to do that than to offer sympathy to a vulnerable minor seeking validation. Here they can gain trust and develop an online relationship, leading to disastrous repercussions.

To recognise when they are being sadfished, and offer them guidance in how they respond to this -- for instance, will they choose to ignore it or do they feel able to offer genuine care and support to this person in their lives? We need to raise children who are compassionate and empathic but also able to draw firm boundaries around their own time, energy and mental health.

Also an important point of awareness for our teenagers is how sadfishing can lurk in the dating world; those who would willingly share their bleeding-heart tales with us until we feel adequately sorry for them, at which point it would seem perfectly reasonable to ask for a nude photo to make them feel better. Adults, also take heed. This actually happened to me recently. I kid you not.

We need to let our kids know that there is little to be gained from sharing a vague woe-is-me post on social media. (Image: Getty)

To teach them better ways to communicate and seek support. This includes us, as parents, having conversations with our children about mental health and offering space for them to share their lives and struggles in a non-judgemental and safe environment. Suffering is silence is never healthy, but also, there is little to be gained from sharing a vague woe-is-me post on social media. More often than not, the desire for validation will only result in a negative outcome from their peers, further damaging their self-esteem.

To teach them sharing their struggles is important, but also provide them with healthier alternatives than following trends like sadfishing. To help them be mindful of what they are posting on social media, and why -- stopping to ask themselves: what is it the outcome I’m seeking here? Is it to share and create a dialogue with others that will lead to understanding, connection and mutual support? Or am I seeking sympathy or attention in order to feel validated in some way?

Kids need to ask themselves: what is it the outcome I’m seeking here? (Image: Getty)

Recognising and understanding the difference between authentic sharing and sadfishing is one of the best tools we can equip our children with to help them navigate their online world a little easier and also find the genuine support they seek, however, more important still is that we show up for our children as present and engaged parents who give them the support and guidance they need.

Because while I’m happy for my teenagers to follow Kendall Jenner’s wisdom on how to treat acne, I’m a little less okay with them following her wisdom on how to do life.