Catfishing and How It Relates to Cyberbullying

man on laptop

Thanks to the internet and social media, it's now easy to connect, communicate, and build relationships with people from all over the world. But this new connectivity also has opened the doors to deception and cyberbullying, including catfishing. As a result, people are often tricked, bullied, and taken advantage of by people who are not who they say they are.

What Is Catfishing?

Catfishing is creating a fake identity online and using it to lure people into a relationship, usually romantic in nature. In other words, people pretend to be someone they are not online in order to hook people into an online romance.

For instance, pedophiles may pretend to be teenagers in order to develop relationships with tweens and teens. They encourage their targets to share intimate information that later is used to lure them into a meeting. These meetings are extremely dangerous because they could result in assault or abduction.

Getting "catfished" means that a person has been tricked into a relationship by someone who is not who they say they are.

Catfishing and Cyberbullying

Meanwhile, teens also engage in other types of online impersonation. Usually, their goal is to humiliate and embarrass their targets. They might use fabricated identities to lure a person into a fake relationship. Later, they may use the information they gathered to embarrass and bully the target. This type of impersonation is a form of cyberbullying.

Cyberbullies often exploit the emotions of others online, especially if they discover something that makes the person sad, depressed, afraid, or lonely. By being vocal about wanting a boyfriend or girlfriend or by talking about dating a lot, teens can be more susceptible to catfishing.

Young teens are especially susceptible to catfishing because they often "friend" people they don't know. They also tend to share too much personal information with other people.

Impersonating someone else online is a form of cyberbullying. It is an intentional act that inflicts emotional harm on another person.

History of Catfishing

The term catfishing comes from a 2010 documentary called "Catfishing." In the documentary, 24-year-old Nev Schulman has an online relationship with 19-year-old Megan Faccio from Michigan.

But Megan Faccio did not exist. Instead, the person Schulman was communicating with was Angela Wesselman, a woman who spent most of her time taking care of her disabled stepsons. She created Megan and duped Schulman.

Another example of catfishing involved a star linebacker from Notre Dame, Manti Te’o. He also was tricked into believing his online girlfriend was a real person. Then, in an effort to untangle themselves from the mess, the impersonators even went so far as to indicate that his girlfriend had lost her battle with leukemia.

Catfishing happens every day to adults and teens alike. In 2019, Facebook estimated that 5% of its monthly active accounts were false accounts. These may be people who harmlessly duplicated an account or created additional accounts, but some are also likely to be individuals who are posting fake profiles.

Signs of Catfishing

To avoid being duped by a stranger online, look for these signs of catfishing in a profile you are interacting with.

  • They avoid face-to-face communication. People who catfish often refuse to give out telephone numbers or use webcams. They also avoid Skype and FaceTime. 
  • Their profile pictures never seem to change. If you look at a catfish’s profile pictures over the years, they are often using the same picture for a number of years. Additionally, the catfish will look the same age year after year. All the pictures look the same.
  • They can never video chat or talk on the phone. Someone who is catfishing might back out of a planned call because of an accident, family emergency, death, or illness. They also may pretend to be traveling or visiting relatives and not able to meet.
  • They have a lot of "friends" of the opposite sex. For instance, female catfish will have a large ratio of male friends online. Likewise, male catfish will have a lot of female friends.
  • They are vague about their past and present. People in relationships with them feel like they never quite have all the information. They don't provide a lot of details about their past, but they also are very vague about their future plans, their family members, and their current job.

How to Avoid Being Catfished

If you notice some warning signs and are unsure if you are being catfished, you can run a reverse image search on Google to see if the photos you have actually belong to the person you believe them to be.

If you find yourself in a situation that seems like catfishing, make copies of all your communications ASAP. This is your proof that something fraudulent happened. People who catfish will delete the account and everything in it as soon as they think they have been caught.

If you do determine that you have been catfished, be sure to report it to the social media provider as soon as possible. You also may want to contact the police, especially if the person has asked for money or to meet in person. Do not unfriend the person until you have talked with the proper authorities. Your online friendship may be the key to catching the catfish once and for all.

5 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Smith LR, Smith KD, Blazka M. Follow me, what’s the harm? Considerations of catfishing and utilizing fake online personas on social media. JLAS. 2017;27(1):32-45. doi:10.1123/jlas.2016-0020

  2. Mason M. The use of the internet and social media by young people. Youth Justice Board.

  3. Derzakarian A. The dark side of social media romance: Civil recourse for catfish victims. Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review. 2017;50:741-764.

  4. Facebook. An update on how we are doing at enforcing our community standards.

  5. Ditch the Label. How to spot a catfish.

By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon, CLC is a published author, certified professional life coach, and bullying prevention expert.