BrightCanary

What Is Sadfishing, and Should You Talk to Your Child About It?

By Andrea Karin Nelson
December 21, 2023
Sad teen on phone in bed

Even if you’ve never heard of sadfishing, you’ve probably seen it. It’s the teary-eyed selfie with a vague caption like, “Why is this happening to me?” Or the lengthy overshare that feels uncomfortable to read. It’s usually followed by scores of supportive comments. 

Sadfishing isn’t uncommon among tweens and teens, but as a parent, it’s hard to know how to react to this behavior. Read on to learn how to differentiate between attention-seeking behavior and a genuine cry for help, along with tips on discussing sadfishing with your child.

What is sadfishing?

Sadfishing refers to social media posts intended to solicit sympathy. The sadfish meaning comes from phishing, an online tactic where someone attempts to “fish” information from a person in order to scam them. With sadfishing, the goal is to catch sympathy, not personal data. 

Why do kids sadfish?

While teens and tweens who sadfish may be exaggerating their emotions, it’s important not to dismiss these posts out of hand. Underneath the overly dramatic optics are usually real emotions and a genuine need for support. The poster simply may not have the tools to seek attention and support in a more effective way. 

How to spot sadfishing

Sadfishing takes many forms: posts, stories, direct messages, and group chats. It includes original posts, as well as sharing sad posts from others and indicating it applies to themselves as well. The language is often intentionally vague, but it can also involve emotional oversharing.

It’s important to note that not every post your kid makes about a hard topic is sadfishing. If they break their arm and post a selfie of their arm in a cast, for example, they’re most likely just sharing their life with their friends. 

Behavior crosses into sadfishing territory when posts become a pattern or when the intensity of the post doesn’t match up with what you’re seeing in their life. Another possible sign of sadfishing is when your child obsessively checks for comments and likes on their post. 

Talking to your child about sadfishing

It’s a good idea to talk to your child about sadfishing, even if they aren’t engaging in this behavior. 

Here are some talking points to consider: 

  • How to react if they see a friend sadfishing: Rather than engaging with the sadfishing post, it’s ultimately more effective to reach out to the person directly to check in on them or make plans to hang out. 
  • Sadfishing and online predators: Caution your kid that sadfishing can make them a target of online predators
  • Sadfishing can backfire: Explain that repeated sadfishing is a bit like The Boy Who Cried Wolf — the more a person sadfishes, the more people will stop taking them seriously, and they’ll get less reactions over time.  
  • Healthy coping skills: Help your kid develop healthy coping skills for dealing with difficult emotions so they aren’t as likely to feel the need to sadfish.  

What to do if your child is sadfishing

Sadfishing exists on a continuum from mild to serious. If you discover your child is participating in this behavior, the first thing to do is determine the level of seriousness so you can act accordingly.

Here are three levels of sadfishing and how to respond: 

1. Attention seeking

When your child makes frequent and vague sadfishing posts, but there’s nothing big happening in their life and they seem fine otherwise, they may be in need of attention but don’t know other means to seek it. 

Some ways to address this are setting aside more time to spend with them, being intentional about demonstrating your interest in their lives, and helping them organize regular get togethers with friends. 

2. Asking for support

When your child’s posts involve oversharing or dwelling on a negative topic and differ from their regular posts, they may need direct support in a particular area. Perhaps they’re having trouble in school or with friends. Talk to them about their posts, offer your support, and inquire about areas of their life where they may be struggling. 

3. A cry for help 

If your child’s posts reference self-harm, suicide, or other extreme behavior, it’s important to take prompt action. Seeking expert guidance and engaging the help of a mental health professional is strongly advised. The National Suicide Hotline is also an excellent resource. 

In short

Sadfishing posts are intended to seek sympathy and support. They can range from mild attention seeking to serious cries for help. Parents should talk to their kids about sadfishing and keep an eye out for this behavior so they can address it accordingly. 

If your child is experiencing suicidal thoughts or a mental health crisis, please reach out immediately to the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 or by texting or calling 988 from a cell phone. These services are free and confidential.