Sadfishing: Identification, Prevention and Response

What is sadfishing?

Sadfishing is a relatively new term coined by Rebecca Reid in January of 2019. Rebecca created the word after reading a social media post by a famous influencer who posted about her problems (acne) online followed by glamorous photos of her solutions (paid brand sponsorship of skincare products). Plainly defined, sadfishing is the act of posting sad, sensitive or emotional things on social media in order to fish for sympathy and get attention.

Pre-internet days, teens would use diaries to write about their innermost feelings, but today, teenagers may use social media platforms to write about those feelings. Many social media platforms offer teenagers a huge online forum to post sad, emotional or sensitive statements, accompanied with photos, videos, emojis and hashtags.

Posting this type of material may be a way for teenagers to connect with others who feel the same way and the lucky teenager may even find appropriate peer support. But sadfishing can also be a serious plea for help, or a way to genuinely highlight an issue in that teen's life. Alternatively, sadfishing may also be used by teens to provoke readers or to cause negative impact as readers try to navigate through their own emotions in response to the post.

Sadfishing can make vulnerable children more vulnerable

By exposing vulnerabilities, the person who has engaged in sadfishing may be leaving themselves open to online harassment or grooming. Studies have shown that those who needed real support were either disappointed by the response they received, or they felt worse when accused of attention-seeking. The responses to sadfishing can damage already fragile mental health and leave a child becoming more vulnerable to online dangers.

Groomers and harassers have an uncanny ability to target the most vulnerable people and sadfishing posts may provide an opportunity for online harassment or grooming. As teenagers share their difficulties and experiences online, groomers can respond and attempt to identify with the teen and offer support. Groomers can use the sadfishing post as a way to connect with the teen to gain their trust – to then exploit at a later time.

Parental response to sadfishing

Sadfishing is creating confusion as to who is attention-seeking and who is genuinely in need of help. Parents do not need to know which category their teen belongs to before they reach out and offer support. Parents should not minimize the post or their teens feelings, but instead they should be open and supportive. Parents can also encourage counseling or other mental health support in a non-judgmental manner.

Parents can prevent sadfishing, or at least intervene early on, if they remember to keep a conversation going with their teen about online activities. If you notice your teen behaving differently, don’t just write it off as teenage angst. Whatever the issue from sadfishing to cyberbullying, your teen needs to know that they can come to you with ANY issue and that you will be there for them.

Teen response to sadfishing

There is no way to know if the friend is posting for attention or posting because they are in serious distress. All posts should be taken seriously, and our teens can initially reach out to their friends privately and offer support. Teenagers should also speak with a trusted adult so that they are not handling sensitive issues on their own.

In most countries around the world, there are online support services for children and young people. Children can call, send text messages or chat with qualified professionals who can provide immediate support or referrals to healthcare providers.

Written by

Dr. Elizabeth Milovidov

Dr. Elizabeth Milovidov is a mom to two tech-savvy little boys, a lawyer, law professor and eSafety consultant.

She is a member of the Working Group of experts on Digital Citizenship Education and an independent expert on Digital Parenting and Children and Internet for the Children’s Rights Division of Council of Europe.

She is an advisor on European Cooperation and International Projects for e-Enfance, a French online child protection association providing support to parents and children in the digital age.

Her core work involves researching solutions for parenting in the digital age and she has authored several guides and workbooks for parents, moderates a Facebook community for parents and is the founder of a website and community with resources for parents.