We’ve all either read or heard of The Boy Who Cried Wolf from Aesop’s Fables: a bored shepherd boy shouted “Wolf! Wolf!” as he tricked villagers into rushing to his aid. Though elementary school teachers have used the fable as a cautionary tale about telling the truth (despite an experiment suggesting that the story ironically increases children’s likelihood of lying), we could have never predicted that this ‘ye old’ boy would spearhead a toxic trend that continues to this day—a phenomenon currently gripping all social media platforms alike.
Coined by writer Rebecca Reid in 2019, sadfishing refers to the behavioural practice where a person ‘fishes’ for attention and sympathy by exaggerating claims about their mental health. “Sadfishing is when someone uses their emotional problems to hook an audience on the internet,” Reid wrote in a column for Metro titled Sadfishing: Using your sadness to get comments and shares is making misery profitable.
The creation of the term was sparked following Kendall Jenner’s series of emotionally-charged Instagram posts back in January 2019. “I’m so proud of my darling @KendallJenner for being so brave and vulnerable,” momager Kris Jenner first wrote on the platform. “Make sure to watch Kendall’s Twitter on Sunday night to find out what I’m talking about and be prepared to be moved.”
“Was Kendall perhaps going to share her own #MeToo story? Or maybe she was coming out? Perhaps she was going to share some home truths about her struggles with mental health,” Reid wrote at the time. Alas, the resultant post turned out to be a paid partnership with skincare brand Proactiv—where the second-youngest of the Jenner/Kardashian dynasty spoke about her brush with acne.
“Kendall Jenner sadfished us,” Reid went on the note.
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Although sadfishing is a fairly recent term, the practice has been around forever. In the pre-internet age, venting was restricted to those secretive ‘Dear Diary’ entries. In 2022, however, social media has evolved into a journal in itself—complete with hashtags to reach dedicated communities in the online sphere.
In this golden age of crying selfies and online breakdowns, sadfishing has the potential to manifest in the form of an Instagram Story which could cryptically read “I just can’t anymore” or “Just when you thought your friends were real…” For every frown-and-skip-story comes a consequential DM asking, “You okay?” and that’s when sadfishing may truly evolve into the emotional equivalent of clickbait.
According to Wikipedia, some of the potential causes for people to resort to sadfishing online include lack of attention and low self-esteem. The ultimate desire for compliments (triggered by consolations) also ties in with narcissistic behaviour among sadfishers.
While jealousy, loneliness and even trolling are also on the list, Wikipedia went on to note how posts about anxiety and depression are commonplace under the practice—as people tend to care and give more attention to sadfishers. “Another reason for sadfishing can be that someone feels uncomfortable sharing feelings with their close friends or family, and as a result, they turn to social media to share feelings for sympathy and attention,” the encyclopaedia continued. “Anti-social behaviour can lead to sadfishing as well: if someone has no friends and no one to talk to, she or he often ends up sharing it online.”
Now, attention-seeking behaviour is quite normal. Humans are social beings and, of course, we all want nods from others—it makes us feel loved and safe in a way. But sadfishing, at its core, is all about manipulation. Although the behavioural practice has become a coping mechanism for many gen Zers, it has also blurred the lines between someone pretending to be going through a hard time and those who are actually on the brink of a mental breakdown.
The action, title and concept of sadfishing are also not without serious consequences. The acknowledgement of this behaviour has only given way to an overwhelming scepticism of any post about mental health online—the irony of this means that Reid’s term is now being weaponised to accuse people of seeking attention and belittling their struggles, whether they were actually guilty of the practice or not. Although The Boy Who Cried Wolf taught us that “a liar will not be believed, even when telling the truth,” here, manipulation has become the breeding ground for the internet to overlook those with ‘real’ struggles.
In a report by Digital Awareness UK, the wellness agency interviewed 50,000 children aged 11 to 16 about their use of technology—only to find that “young people with genuine mental health issues who legitimately seek support online are facing unfair and distressing criticism that they are jumping onto the publicity bandwagon.”
What’s worse is that, in some cases, how other users respond to one’s authentic concerns shared online can be even more harmful to their mental health and make them vulnerable to further manipulation.
The findings went on to state how a person wrongly accused of sadfishing may be at risk of experiencing lowered self-esteem, anxiety and shame. They might also be discouraged from seeking support from family, friends, partners or support workers. Wikipedia additionally noted how the behavioural practice exposes younger people to bullies and predators—resulting in cyberbullying and child grooming online.
So how can you discern sadfishing from genuine crises, especially if you’re not a mental health professional? According to Dr. Lindsey Giller, a clinical psychologist based in New York, “If someone posts about not wanting to live with direct or indirect expressions, such as ‘There is nothing to live for anymore’ or ‘People will be better off without me,’ it should be taken very seriously.”
“Talking about suicide can be a plea for help and it can be a late sign in the progression towards a suicide attempt,” the expert told Parade. The publication also added how people most at risk will show other signs in addition to talking about self-harm, such as a deepening depression, expression of feeling trapped, feelings of worthlessness or a preoccupation with death. “They may not post online if they are considering suicide or self-harm, while others may depend on the outlet because they’re more comfortable expressing themselves online.”
Meanwhile, Dr. Shoshana Bennett, a clinical psychologist from California, highlighted that when a friend who doesn’t typically post anything dramatic does so out of the blue, it can be a sign that the person can use support and a referral for professional help. If so, Giller recommends to “check-in to see how they are doing and offer supportive statements. Let your friend know you care about them and you do not judge them, and want to help.”
At the same time, be aware that responding to such posts online can influence one’s mental health in any direction. So be careful when replying, especially if the person who uploaded the claims seems distraught. “A careless post can push the person over the edge,” Bennett warned. Even if you think the person is sadfishing, avoid belittling their experience by replying along the lines of: “Oh come on, it’s not that bad.”
In the end, remember that the danger of missing a genuine call for help is much greater than putting up with a few antics on the internet.