The mind seems to have been overtaken by the heart in every aspect of modern life but in an ambivalent way. Thought leaders, CEOs, gyangurus, life coaches…everyone claims the significance of feelings while upholding logic and reason. What are these mixed messages doing to our teenagers?
They have taken to sadfishing with the help of social media.
Have you heard of the term? It has been around since the advent of tweets, Facebook status updates and Instagram captions but most adults are unaware of the social phenomenon. Sadfishing refers to young people fishing for emotional support online by exaggerating their suffering. Sadfishing looks like posts that say, “There is too much sadness and I can’t take it anymore” or that “I am ready to just give up.” It attracts immediate sympathy and attention from the audience. In time, the sadness, hopelessness and negativity grow to become a toxic echo chamber that imprisons the venting teenager.
Why does a teen sadfish? It is much easier for a 14-year-old to share her struggles online in an anonymous manner with next to nil likelihood of being confronted. It is more difficult to approach someone in real life and ask for help.
A sadfishing teen may post fabricated emotional struggles that refer to mental states of anxiety, depression, even suicidal thoughts but the goal is to get attention and not necessarily genuine help. There may be sharing of some particularly negative song lyrics, young people at times will post selfies of themselves crying, there might even be a status update on how they feel the world will not miss them much.
What should a parent do under these circumstances? It is important to spell out ground rules for social media use at home. Ideally parents ought to follow their teens on the various platforms including their “finsta” or other Instagram accounts. There are parent control monitoring apps available that will alert you whenever your teen opens a new social media account. It sounds undemocratic and repressive but there are serious threats to the lives and mental health of our teens online in these hyperconnected times.
Teens post about their emotions and dark feelings with an expectation of empathy or attention or reassurance. This strategy can sometimes backfire because there are bullies out there who may manipulate the children. It is important therefore to offer compassion to your child and encourage them to share with family and friends instead. The parent or teacher must be a child’s go-to person and not a stranger online.
A distasteful phenomenon of “kids grooming” happens online wherein unscrupulous adults offer support, attention and then gain the trust of emotionally expressive teens. It is therefore alright for parents to know what apps their teens are using. It is a safe practice to know what the young are doing online and who they are talking to. How does one judge, however, if it is just sadfishing or a genuine cry for help? Does the teen’s behaviour offline match the online post? If it doesn’t, then the anomaly ought to be nipped in the bud. In a wholesome and kind way.
A constant and ongoing conversation about safe and healthy digital activity needs to take place in homes. Adults do need to monitor their child’s behaviour both online and in real life. Freaking out and meting out punishment will not work however. Your teen needs to know that they can come to you when they are in trouble.
Many teenagers claim they can be more authentic online, the level of intimacy and connectedness to their fellow users being such. Given the red flags, however, perhaps alternative outlets can be provided for validation without the negative consequences of social media-based disclosures.
So now you know your teen is sadfishing? The first thing to do is to communicate that you care deeply for them and want to support them. Establish that connection right away. Explain that there is always an option of speaking to a third person such as a school counsellor or a therapist should the teen be wary of sharing all of it with the parent. It is also important to remember that no matter how self-serving a post may appear, there well may be a grain of truth to the message.
Truth be told, social media is not a safe place for teens to regularly air their feelings or compare themselves to others. Because so many teens are sharing their raw and sometimes exaggerated feelings online, sadfishing can turn into a circus along “The Boy Who Cried Wolf.” Readers start to roll their eyes when they see posts about depression and anxiety rather than offer help that may be needed. It does not help to romanticize or capitalize difficult life experiences.
Sadfishing can turn social media into an unsafe and morbid space with fatalistic expressions. It blurs the line between exaggerating emotions and becoming sucked into them, there is a real and present possibility of the vocabulary triggering mental health issues.
Whether or not a child has a Finsta, “a secret Instagram account where they express more personal thoughts”, a lot more conversations need to happen around sadfishing in general. If nothing else, it will encourage your young to come to you should they feel out of sorts. They may also learn how to react to a friend who is sadfishing.
It is important to spread awareness and accountability on social media. A lot of poison flies under the radar simply because the coordinates and frequencies are unfamiliar.
As adults that are heavily invested in the young, here is an opportunity to orchestrate the right interventions so as to build stronger connections with them. We can no longer afford to miss out on this one, you never know when this support might be called in to save a precious and promising young life today.
The author is a former teacher/journalist, published author and professional speaker on generational empathy with a background and training in media, having worked in advertising, public relations, documentary film making, and feature journalism. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and https://neerjasingh.com.