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The one thing teens and parents alike can acknowledge about social media is that it feels good to be connected to the world around you – and that there is something innately rewarding about seeing people react to the content you put online. That interaction can be profoundly addicting. Not in the same way that drugs like alcohol or tobacco are addicting, but in a completely different way, like a bad habit that is tough to shake.

Sometimes, teens find out that certain kinds of posts elicit more attention than others. They are quick to catch on, even indirectly, that by playing on people’s empathy and emotions by posting troubling or melancholic content, they can get more popular online. Other teens are going through the struggles they are describing but use social media to vent their feelings without considering how this behavior might expose them to dangerous and manipulative risks.

Most kids do not mean much by doing this, let alone feel like they are “lying” or acting maliciously. They might not even realize that what they are doing is that big of a deal. Other kids and adults alike understand that what they are doing is deeply misleading – and do it anyway, for attention or profit. When people post sad content online specifically to draw attention to themselves and provoke a reaction, they are “sadfishing.”

Teens who are sadfishing might not necessarily feel sad. Others feel sad but are unlikely to acknowledge it with their parents, let alone a professional, and feel more comfortable eliciting support from their online followers. In both cases, sadfishing is a troubling phenomenon and points towards larger issues revolving around the excessive use of social media and its influence on teens’ drug use and mental health.

More Than Just Attention Seeking Behavior

Teens are not dumb – but they are far from wise, and many teens fail to think about long-term consequences. They tend to do things on a whim, which is part of why social media can be a double-edged sword for many adolescents. While it is certainly a useful way to stay connected to others, it also tends to reward teens who become a little too revealing with their thoughts and personal lives.

These platforms tend to heavily incentivize content that rewards users to crave more attention – no matter how vapid or shallow the engagement might be. Even teens who are not necessarily prone to seeking attention are effectively lured into tailoring their online persona in ways that might elicit more attention, including sadfishing. Because teens tend to spend more time online anyway and are less likely to realize how their habits might be affecting them, they are also more prone to engaging in this type of behavior.

In other cases, sadfishing is more than just an innate need to keep up with other friends by boosting your online metrics. Some teens resort to sadfishing to soothe their real fears and anxieties, not by seeking help but by effectively resorting to a “quick fix” in the form of distance, “safe” online interaction. This can feel less invasive or direct than real help, even if it can also open the door to grooming behavior from dangerous adults, especially on platforms with fewer minors’ protections.

The most troubling and challenging aspect of sadfishing is that it can be challenging to detect sincerity. While all teens who are sadfishing are explicitly looking for people to react to their posts, some might be struggling with a few of the emotions they’re describing – while others aren’t. By extension, this can harm a teen’s credibility and the bonds of trust they have built with other people.

As the phenomenon grows within a social circle, it becomes less and less likely for severe posts about mental health issues to draw the kind of attention they should. A cry for help is misinterpreted as yet another exaggerated claim written to bait a conversation online or get more likes. This cry wolf effect might extend to kids who do not usually make attention-grabbing posts but do not know how or where to ask for help.

Why Teens Resort to Sadfishing

We generally do not normalize talking about mental health issues, at least not in a brutal way. And some teens might be unaware of how or where to seek help or do not like the idea of needing help in the first place. Posting a cry for help online can be a way to express oneself. Thankfully, sadfishing is easy to recognize, even if it is not easy to categorize. It would help if you got the chance to see what your child posts online, albeit with their permission.

Your teen is much less likely to accept an offer for help if they feel you are effectively spying on them. Be sure to check in with them now and again and offer them the opportunity to open to you themselves, without confronting them about sad or melancholic posts out of the blue. Open dialogue with your teen about following their accounts and seeing what kind of things they post. Note that teens nowadays tend to make multiple accounts anyway.

These are carefully curated online personas and “fake” profiles designed to act as a whimsical or emotional vent or just a place to post memes and inside jokes (so-called “finstas“). If your teen does not want you to see their finsta, it is up to you whether you would like to trust them enough to respect that wish and ask that they talk to you whenever they need to or decide to try and find it anyway.

Depression, Anxiety, and Social Media Use

Social media is not black or white. Excessive use of social media has been linked to higher rates of depressive or anxious thinking. Some teens are more likely to be affected by the negative aspects of online media use than others. There are also clear dangers regarding social media, from unsolicited messages and potential predators to the effects of highly curated photo feed on a teen’s self-esteem and perception of reality.

It is essential to have these conversations with your child and ensure that they understand that online spending a lot of time can be a double-edged sword. Restricting their media use by cutting down on the amount of time they spend on social media every day can help. Whenever a new technology comes around, older generations tend to worry about its potentially corrupting influence on the youth.

This phenomenon traces as far back as the invention of the printing press. But there is genuine evidence that excessive screen time is affecting teens negatively. There’s a linear relationship between more smartphone screen time and lower wellbeing among adolescents. This does not make the Internet evil – and there are arguments for making sure your teen has access to the Internet and the wealth of information and possibilities it enables.

However, limiting access, at least during the formative years, might help curb the harmful effects of social media, from maladjusted perceptions of the world to being far too open about one’s private life or resorting to habits like sadfishing for more likes and engagement.