Sadfishing: Is Your Child Fishing for Sympathy or Asking for Help?

Upset teen using laptop

Monkey Business Images / iStockphoto

If you're like most parents, you're just learning how to decipher your teen's emotional needs in real life, let alone online. But, as social media becomes a bigger part of your child's life, it's worth being aware of a new term—sadfishing—and how it can impact your tween or teen. Here's what you need to know.

What Is Sadfishing?

Journalist Rebecca Reid coined the term sadfishing in 2019 in a situation involving Kendall Jenner. Here's what happened: Jenner posted on Instagram about having acne; and initially, the model received a great deal of sympathy from the online community. Then people realized that her posts were actually part of an advertising campaign for the acne medication, Proactiv.

Reid labeled Jenner's behavior sadfishing. Whether it was true or not, Reid accused Jenner of making exaggerated claims online for the sole purpose of gaining attention, likes, followers, or sympathy.

Once the term became widely circulated, people began accusing others of sadfishing when they made a vulnerable post that appeared inauthentic. The problem is, not every emotional post online is an attempt to get sympathy or attention, and it's impossible to know the goal of someone's post without asking them directly. In fact, some people—especially tweens and teens—are posting about very real emotional issues with genuine intentions. However, viewers may still accuse them of sadfishing.

According to psychotherapist Amy Morin, LCSW and author of the best-selling books "13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do," and "13 Things Mentally Strong Parents Don't Do," teens are just learning how to express themselves and may use social media in ways that adults would never consider.

There's nothing wrong with a young adult posting about their hardships in an advertisement, or merely to raise awareness about an issue. With that being said, it is hard to gauge how their followers will interpret their vulnerabilities. Sometimes they will receive support and positive interactions, but other times they may get negative responses and accusations that can actually make their situation worse. This

Amy Morin, LCSW

Social media posts may have replaced diaries. Teens are publicly posting about their emotions to see what happens and how others respond to them.

— Amy Morin, LCSW

Is Your Child Fishing for Sympathy or Asking for Help?

For parents, the problem is knowing how to determine when their kids are being authentic and dealing with a very real mental health issue and when they are simply engaging in attention-seeking behavior. Social media can make it difficult to determine context and read nonverbal cues. In fact, there is no way to know for sure if your child is suffering emotionally or only seeking attention without talking to them about what is going on. And, even then, it may be wise to get a mental health professional involved.

"Sadfishing may be a sign that a teenager is craving more attention," Morin says. "They may be lacking positive attention from their peers. Or, they may be hurting and unsure how to communicate their needs effectively. It might also be their attempt to test others' loyalty so they can see who cares about them based on how other people respond."

That said, there are some warning signs that your teen is in distress and needs immediate assistance from a mental health professional. For instance, making statements like "Everyone would be better off without me," "Life is so pointless," or "I have nothing really to live for or look forward to," could be signs that a teen is considering suicide.

Most teens and tweens who are contemplating suicide might show other warning signs too like deepening depression, feelings of hopelessness, being preoccupied with death, and feeling worthless or trapped.

Another sign that there may be a deeper issue at play is if your tween or teen doesn't typically post anything emotional or dramatic online and suddenly starts doing so. If that is happening in your young person's life, it could be a sign that they need support from a professional.

"Parents should certainly be on the lookout for talk about self-harm or suicide as well as substance use," says Morin. "Kids who seem to feel hopeless or helpless may be struggling with depression."

If your tween or teen is having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.

For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.

Talking to Your Child About Their Online Behavior

When it comes to your teen's emotional social media posts, it's important to talk to your kids about what they're thinking and feeling. Ask them how they are doing and why they decided to post online about their feelings, and then truly listen to their response without judging them or trying to fix things. You also can offer supportive statements like, "I understand what you're going through," or "That sounds really hard."

Try to avoid minimizing what they're experiencing and refrain from making statements like, "Get over it," or "That doesn't sound that bad." Those types of statements are hurtful and can cause your child to shut down and stop talking, says Kristin Rinehart, LISW, LCSW, TTS. Rinehart is the Director of Behavioral Health at Muskingum Valley Health Centers and owner of Changing Minds LLC.

Kristin Rinehart, LISW, LCSW, TTS

Remember that posting about a difficult experience or challenging feelings can be really empowering for some young people. Just guide them on healthier ways to share their feelings like using direct messaging or posting in an online support group. It's also important to acknowledge the courage they demonstrated for reaching out for help even if social media is not always an effective vehicle for getting help and support.

— Kristin Rinehart, LISW, LCSW, TTS

Remind them to think carefully about what information they put online because not everyone will respond in the way that they had hoped and they could end up feeling worse after posting, Morin says. You also should consider connecting your tween or teen with a mental health expert so that they can receive help with the problems they're facing as well as learn healthier ways of dealing with strong emotions.

"Parents should have ongoing conversations about social media and sadfishing posts," Morin suggests. "Parents can discuss the potential consequences, both positive and negative, as well as talk about how to get help and alternative ways to interact with peers."

The Risks of Sadfishing

One of the biggest risks with creating emotional posts on social media is the risk of being cyberbullied, especially when your teen's posts are authentic. For instance, being made fun of or called names for feeling depressed or anxious can cause an already vulnerable tween or teen to sink further into depression, experience more anxiety, or start to believe that they truly don't matter.

Additionally, being accused of sadfishing when they are being honest about their feelings also can cause them to assume no one takes them seriously and that no one cares about what they are going through. These types of feelings can feel devastating to a young person. In fact, according to one survey, accusations of sadfishing are further harming already vulnerable teens and tweens with mental health problems when they don't receive the support they need online.

The survey also found that tweens and teens who make emotional posts are at risk of being targeted by online predators. People who target young people online will look for vulnerable posts and try to make connections with the tween or teen.

They use the information shared as a way to make a connection and build trust and then later look for ways to exploit them. Once a connection is made, the chat is usually moved to a private message where they attempt to gather personal information or even ask for images.

Signs of Grooming

Here are some indicators that your tween or teen may be interacting with an online predator. Predators often:

  • Send lots of messages in a short period of time.
  • Work hard to build a connection and may impersonate a younger person.
  • Compliment your tween or teen and may even send them gifts.
  • Ask that the relationship is kept a secret, especially from adults or parents.
  • Request personal information like where your child lives and goes to school.
  • Try to find out when your tween or teen is alone or away from you.
  • Steer the conversations toward sexual themes.
  • Solicit revealing, nude, or sexually explicit photos or videos.
  • Ask to meet in person or in a private location.

How to Prevent Sadfishing

When it comes to online risks, most parents think that the best response is to take away their smartphones or forbid them from having social media accounts. But those actions do not teach your kids how to navigate the online world and may cut them off from their peers. Instead, it's important for parents to teach their kids how to use social media responsibly. This includes teaching them how to have digital etiquette, to consider their digital footprint, and to regularly clean up their social media accounts.

It's also important for parents to talk to their kids not only about how to identify their feelings but also about where to find help and assistance when they are struggling. Talk to your kids about where and when to make posts online, even emotional posts. Point them to online support groups and other safe spaces where they can be authentic and talk to others about what they're experiencing.

"A teen may benefit from writing in a journal or having a private online space to write," Morin says. "Or, a small group of friends might be able to share their feelings without making it public."

And, if they do happen to make an emotional post on their social media account, be sure to talk through the situation with them. Find out how they're feeling and help them find the support they need.

A Word From Verywell

While keeping up with the multitude of ways that young people use social media can feel overwhelming at times, it's an important part of parenting. After all, social media, smartphones, and other technologies are an intricate part of teen lives. Make sure you stay in tune with what your kids are doing online, and use their posts and online experiences as teaching opportunities.

Also, resist the urge to forbid them from using social media in order to "keep them safe." In the end, you will be doing them a disservice because they need to know how to use social media in adulthood. Instead, take these opportunities to teach them how to set boundaries and use social media responsibly and with purpose.

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Article 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. Reid, Rebecca. Sadfishing: Using your sadness to get comments and shares is making misery profitable. Metro. January 21, 2019.

  2. Suicide Prevention Lifeline. We can all prevent suicide. Updated 2021.

  3. HMC and Digital Awareness UK. Tech Control Annual Report.

  4. RAINN. Grooming: Know the warning signs. Updated July 10, 2020.

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