Catfishing and How It Relates to Cyberbullying

Understanding the dynamics of catfishing

man on laptop

The Internet and social media have connected people all over the world. Now, it's easy for them to communicate with one another and build relationships. But this new connectivity also has opened the doors to fraud, deception, and cyberbullying. As a result, people are often tricked, bullied, and taken advantage of by people who are not who they say they are. Developing an artificial persona to start fake relationships online is often called “catfishing.”

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

For instance, pedophiles and other predators will pretend to be young teens in order to develop relationships with teenagers. 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.

Meanwhile, teens also engage in impersonation online. Usually, their goal is to humiliate and embarrass their targets. The impersonators may pretend to be a fictitious person online in order to develop a fake relationship with the target. Later, they may use the information they gathered to embarrass and bully the target further. This type of impersonation is a form of cyberbullying.

History of Catfishing Online

The term catfishing comes from the 2010 documentary called "Catfishing." In the documentary, 24-year-old Nev Schulman carried out an online relationship with 19-year-old Megan Faccio from Michigan. But, Megan Faccio did not even exist. Instead, the person he was communicating with was Angel Wesselman, a bored housewife 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 is not limited to well-known people like Schulman or Te’o. It happens every day to adults and teens alike. In fact, 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.

Catfishing and Cyberbullying

Impersonating someone else online is a form of cyberbullying. It is an intentional act that inflicts emotional harm on another person. Young teens are especially susceptible to catfishing because they often “friend” people they do not know.

They also are at risk because they tend to share too much personal information, especially their emotions, with other people. Cyberbullies often exploit the emotions of others online, especially if they discover something 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.

Possible Warning Signs 

To avoid being duped by a stranger online, look for these signs of a catfish.

  • Avoids personal communication. For instance, people who catfish often refuse to give out telephone numbers or use webcams. They also avoid Skype and FaceTime. 
  • It seems to look the same year after year. 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.
  • Avoids contact by using traumatic life events as an excuse. These life events might include accidents, family emergencies, deaths, and illnesses such as cancer. They also may pretend to be traveling or visiting relatives and not able to meet.
  • Has an unusually large number of opposite sex “friends” online. For instance, female catfish will have a large ratio of male friends online. Likewise, male catfish will have a lot of female friends.
  • Appears vague about their past. People in relationships with them feel like they never quite have all the information. They also 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.

If You or Your Child Is Being Catfished

If you are unsure if you have been catfished, you can run a reverse image search on Google to see if the photos you have actually belong to someone else.

If you find yourself in a situation that seems like a catfishing scandal, it is important to make copies of all your communications. 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.

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