In this post for our 'Teen Talk' column—articles written by teens and young adults to help parents understand what's really happening in their world—a young adult defines the social media act of sadfishing and explains how parents can help their teens through mental health issues.

By Cassidy Littleton
November 26, 2019
mobile phone with fishing hook catching sad emojis
Credit: Illustration by Emma Darvick

Sadfishing might not be a familiar word to you, but it is nothing new in the adolescent world. And you might actually be aware of this trend behind the name—it's been common ever since the inception of social media. Sadfishing is when someone exaggerates their emotional state in order to get sympathy or attention from an audience. Generally, this shows up on social media in different forms, whether that be in tweets, Instagram captions, or Facebook status updates. Sadfishing often capitalizes on sadness, hopelessness, and negativity, and it can be an extremely toxic echo chamber for teens to get caught in.

When I was 14 years old, my Facebook account was littered with posts stating things like, "I'm ready to just give up," or, "The sadness is too much and I just can’t take it anymore." I was depressed, but I wasn't going to tell anybody that in person. Sharing my struggles on social media was so much easier than approaching someone or asking for help, so I sought attention on the ever-anonymous and non-confrontational platform that is the internet. I'm not alone and I want to help parents learn how to recognize if their teen is sadfishing, why they are doing it, and navigate how to address it.

Why Teens are Sadfishing

When a teen is posting song lyrics that are blatantly depressing, sharing about how hopeless their life is, or even referencing self-harm and suicidal ideation, they want your attention—whether it's a conscious desire or not. Sometimes, this is an indirect cry for help. I’m sure many of you can relate to the fact that it’s often hard and scary to confront the truth, especially when it makes us look weak, vulnerable, or dependent. If your teen is outrightly posting worrisome statements, it’s worth checking into. Maybe they’re just hoping someone will notice they’re hurting. There is often an underlying need for connection and recognition from others. But that’s what makes sadfishing on social media so dangerous; seeking that recognition on social media rarely has the positive outcome teens are hoping for.

Sadfishing can be also complicated and problematic since not all teens who do it are actually dealing with a mental health crisis or crying out for help. Some just do it just to gain attention, and this is can be deceptive to their friends and family. Much like the horrible trend of "catfishing," where a person pretends to be someone they are not to start an online relationship, sadfishing can send false signals to a reader on the receiving end of the post about what is actually going on in real life.

The Impacts of Sadfishing

Because so many teens are sharing their raw and sometimes exaggerated feelings online, sadfishing can diminish the validity of emotional claims. Just like "The Boy Who Cried Wolf," was not believed when there was a real emergency, teens who continuously post exaggerated information are less likely to get the help they actually need for mental health issues. And those who need help are often buried under all this noise.

For example, when I was younger I would post really sad poetry that mentioned depression and self-harming ideation. I didn’t have a lot of people in my daily life who checked on my mental wellbeing and sadfishing was my way of telling people that I was not okay. I was honestly struggling, but I didn’t know how to ask for help. Social media was the only outlet I felt that I had for connecting with others about my situation. But I remember a lot of peers from high school would post about threatening to end their lives. For many of them, these posts were nothing more than an attention-getter and a joke—and my actual cries for help didn't spark any concern.

Mental health is a very real issue that teenagers face, but if a teenager is romanticizing or capitalizing on these difficult experiences, they invalidate the seriousness of certain experiences. Readers start to roll their eyes when they see posts about depression and anxiety rather than offer help that may be needed.

Sadifishing also turns social media into a dangerous environment where teens can get sucked into negative thought-patterns, and this can instigate actual harm. Sadfishing blurs the line between exaggerating emotions and becoming absorbed by them, thus creating the potential for teens to actually develop mental health issues.

How Can Parents Help?

Fortunately, sadfishing is a problem that is easily-alleviated. For starters, engage with and monitor your teen's social media activity so that you can notice signs of sadfishing and irregular or deceptive thought patterns. You can do this by following your teen on social media and keeping an open dialogue about what’s happening on social media. If you see posts that are concerning to you, ask your teen if they are okay and if they need help.

There’s always the chance that a teen has a “finsta,” a secret Instagram account where they express more personal thoughts. Even if you don’t know exactly what your teen is posting, it’s okay to talk about sadfishing in general. At the very least, this helps your teen know that they can come to you if they are feeling depressed or overwhelmed. It will also show them how to react if they see a friend sadfishing. Talking about social media trends and sadfishing could not only help the relationship between you and your teen, but it could help them spread awareness and accountability on social media, as well as equip them to help others.

Remember: people who sadfish want your attention. Be honest with your teen about the impact that sadfishing has on them and their audience, and of course, share how it makes you feel as a parent. However, make sure you're trying to understand and relate to them without getting angry or making the conversation about you and how their actions may reflect on you and your parenting. If the issue is serious, consider talking to a professional like a doctor or a counselor. This is especially important if a teen ends up confessing a need for help. Do your best to let them make that call.

The Bottom Line

Your teens need to know that they can come to you when they need help. It's important for them to learn how their social media comes across to others, and most importantly, that mental health is not something to joke about or exaggerate. If your teen is truly struggling with mental health issues, offer your support and let them know you are available and willing to get them help. Encourage them to share their emotions in a healthy way, like journaling, talking to someone, or exercising, and come alongside them in that journey. As a parent, you have a great opportunity to intervene in a teen's life to reroute their thinking, examine their emotions, and build a stronger relationship. Don't miss out on this—you never know when your support could save a life.

Cassidy is a 21-year-old college student whose major passion is mentoring teens and fighting for child welfare legislative reform. A junior at Boise State University, she studies public relations with a minor in political science and is an active voice in the Idaho community. 

Comments (4)

December 4, 2019
Ok. Third time's a charm with this comment: kids shouldn't be allowed to access social media. It's dangerous. Social media should be regulated as alcohol and cigarettes are. Social media kills and it warps impressionable minds. Cyber-bullying is real.
December 4, 2019
As far as I'm concerned, you should be 18 or 21 in order to access social media just like alcohol and cigarettes. Kids should only be allowed to have cell phones with important numbers in them. Technology was not made for children and it's killing them just as bad if not worse than drugs and cigarettes.
December 4, 2019
Sadfishing is just another term for something that has been going on since before recorded time, except now these people have a social media outlet to gain attention instead of lamenting their woes in an elevated tone, to no one in particular.
December 4, 2019
I feel very sorry for all these teens making themselves sad with all their social media traps, etc. But as a 63 year old ex-teen myself, I have to offer some advice. 63 may sound ancient to kids these days but having grown up in the wild 1970's-80's and been playing rock guitar since 13 years old, gone to many concerts, almost died from overdoses a couple times, and done every major street drug you can name (which contributed mightily to the sort of teen depression everyone's going through these days evidently)....I am qualified to comment. My prescription is simply this: 1- get OFF your damn devices, in any serious social way. We never had any of this crap and we still had a blast, and bad times weren't cluttered and b.s.'d by endless empty opinions from an electronic screen. Where I grew up, watching too much TV was considered something for nerds and [filtered]. You got out and DID things. In the real world. If you're solidly addicted, grab yourself by the neck, hard, and wean yourself off it. Go One Whole Day without any social media (answer a few emails if you want), and do something PHYSICAL instead. Write with an ink pen in a diary book, draw, throw a tennis ball against the wall, walk around in circles till you collapse, carve a log with a hatchet...anything. How did you feel at the end of the day? Did you miss all that sadfishing, or were you impressed by how exhausted you made yourself with all that circle-walking? Ok, go back to your media now. Then skip another day. If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, would you like to look back and remember that log carving or remember all the "sadfishing" you did. 2- take up something, anything, that has nothing to do with devices. At all. And get obsessed with that. I used to get depressed (I guess) and just lay there with my guitar on my bed and noodle. READ. READ. READ. Good stuff. Like classic novels, ancient philosophy, art books. Stuff that has SURVIVED and will still be here when everyone reallizes what a pile of trash all these electronic media is in another 100 years (the Big Tech execs are already limiting their own kids' usage, that should tell you something). Your life will go very fast I assure you. If there's something you want to do, start doing it immediately! Want to play piano? Get a piano and sit down at it every day. Don't play it. Just sit down at it. Then hit one note, then get up. Or maybe two notes, nothing drastic. Then leave till next day. Then play three notes. 3- stop reading the endless b.s. articles from self-proclaimed mental health "experts" how willpower is an idea that should be scrapped, "emotional intelligence", and such ilk, like I just saw today in the headlines. Your key to getting un-depressed is a) staying engaged with the physical world and b) CREATING things. And #4. If something sounds confusing and unworkable and doesn't "ring" with you, then it's b.s. Go for certainty, whereever you can find it. 4- KEEP UP ON YOUR VITAMINS. Taking 200-300mg of vitamin B1 all by itself will help you mentally a lot. Tons. Lack of B1 is why alcoholics get D.T.'s.(because the alcohol burns up all their B1, for starters). And balance it with your other basic ones, B, C, E, etc, as well as zince, etc. Look it up. The stress and coffee off this world burn up vitamins like mad, and big deficiencies make people crazy. What's amazing is that kids and non-kids have all this time these days to sit around and self-indulge in all this media-sadness nonsense. If you had to worry every day about whether you were going to run out of food that week after a lousy harvest, or if you were going to get raided and killed by bandits, all this self-inflicted mental swamping around would seem like a ridiculous childish indulgence wouldn't it? If you don't go anything tough you'll never find out how tough you are will you? And dump any media and non-media "friends" that aren't contributing to your happiness and goals. You CAN do without them all. If you can't find strength and purpose alone with yourself, you'll sure as hell never get it from emotional bloodsuckers. I've applied the above and made it to 63, in spite of massive self-denial and abuse. Just for a gag. You're only shooting for what, 30 or something? Poor thing, you might just make it to 50 if you try some of the above. Good luck. You can turn off your cell phone now tough girl.