What parents need to know about social media-led ‘sadfishing’ trend


A concerning trend has emerged known as sadfishing and it could have an alarming impact on student wellbeing.

What is sadfishing?

Sadfishing is a term used to describe the act of exaggerating or feigning sadness or emotional distress online, often on social media platforms, to get sympathy, attention, or engagement from followers. In popular culture, it’s related to catfishing and kittenfishing and typically involves a crying selfie or video.

The term was first used in 2019 when Kendall Jenner wrote a series of heart-wrenching posts teasing the reveal of a past traumatic event – only for momager Kris Jenner to launch a paid partnership with a skincare brand and reveal the ‘trauma’ was a past brush with acne.

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In response, writer Rebecca Reid commented on the post, “Kendall Jenner sadfished us” and the comment went viral.

The impact on students

If the Kardashian-Jenners can be considered a masterclass in social media strategy, then the tactics used in this series of posts offered a playbook in drumming up engagement and attention on social media. It showed that, done right, emotional distress can be weaponised to take down the Instagram algorithm and guarantee likes, comments, shares and reposts.

Sadfishing can have varying consequences for young people, from the perspective of the poster and of the followers too.

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Students, in particular, can feel peer pressure to engage in sadfishing to fit in or conform to online trends, even if they are not genuinely experiencing emotional distress. That dynamic can then cause increased emotional distress as they are compelled to continually produce – real or fabricated – personal hardships.

Psychotherapist Vara Glover points out that, when a sadfishing post is published, “it’s viewed from the perspective of the poster, the followers who see the post and are deeply empathetic about it, and the followers who see the post and don’t take it seriously”.

When sadfishing goes wrong

“The issue with kids seeing and engaging with sadfishing content is that, for example, a follower may be drawn into a particular storyline because it taps into a personal memory and brings up heated emotions for them.

The nature of social media means the algorithm will then direct them to content with similar themes and their newsfeed will then take on a theme, for at least a short while, of similarly emotionally distressing content.

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This phenomenon can potentially cause emotional fatigue and, conversely, it can also cause young people to become desensitised, making it challenging for them to distinguish genuine cries for help from attention-seeking behaviour.

The other issue is that today’s young social media users are increasingly adept at uncovering falsehoods, true identities, and personal details. If sadfishing is uncovered and exposed it can ostracise the poster from a network they’ve become emotionally reliant on, both online and potentially in real life when they interact with friends and followers at school.

“For young people, social media can be a platform to seek validation,” Ms Glover told The Bursar, “so it’s always better to go down the route of empathy and then figure it out”.

“Even if it is a dramatisation, try to come from a place of curiosity, and there are people out there using this as their cry for help.”

Addressing sadfishing

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For parents looking to address sadfishing with their children, Ms Glover’s advice is simple: “It comes down to the basics and checking that the relationship with social media and with devices is healthy. That has a knock-on effect and, if you’re on top of that, then maybe you’re not getting tripped up by trends like sadfishing,” she told The Bursar.

As a first step, parents can create an environment for open communication where kids and teens are encouraged to discuss their feelings and emotions openly with trusted friends, family, or counsellors, instead of seeking validation through public posts.

Digital literacy and the ability to critically evaluate online content can help young people to recognise when someone might be sadfishing, and also how to respond empathetically, or not at all, if they are.

“I’m a big believer of bringing the next generation up with good ethical, moral values, and instilling in the next generation that these are the moral values that we believe in and that we think will help guide them through this stage of navigating life with modern technology.”

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By Charlie
Charlie Writes is a Sydney based, London born, Caribbean writer, interviewer and poet. A colourful 27 year career has taken Charlie from typing poems on the spot on her 1970’s typerwiter named June, to donning a hard hat as a roving reporter in the construction industry. All while living out her favourite quote that the greatest adventures begin with a simple conversation.