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.
Meet sadfishing, the emotional sibling of catfishing and kittenfishing all about crying selfies and cryptic lines about one’s mental health on Instagram Stories, tweets and Facebook posts.
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.
Does benching, breadcrumbing, breezing, cushioning, negging, hogging and pocketing ring a bell? What about catfishing? Introduced to the dating world in the 2010 documentary film called Catfish, the term refers to the deceptive practice where someone pretends to be a completely different person online than they are in real life. A catfish will typically steal another individual’s identity (including their pictures, date of birth and geographical location), avoid showing their face on video calls and make up stories that are often too good to be true.
In Catfish, photographer Nev Schulman documented his own journey to uncover who was really behind the long-distance relationship he’d been having with 19-year-old singer named ‘Megan’. Eventually, he finds out that the person on the other end—who he’d engaged with over hundreds of text messages, Facebook posts and phone calls—had been a middle-aged man based in Michigan.
Although Schulman went on to create the MTV series Catfish: The TV Show, we’re here to acknowledge a growing offspring of catfishing today—which, to be honest, we’re all lowkey guilty of to a certain extent. Welcome to the wildly exaggerated world of kittenfishing. Now, before you ask, no, this toxic dating trend has nothing to do with furry little munchkins dunking their paws in water or staring rather greedily at a fish tank.
Coined by the dating app Hinge in 2017, kittenfishing is the diet version of catfishing if you will, a tactic where you purposely misrepresent yourself online but not to the extreme extent where you have a full-fledged false identity complete with a fake passport and accent. Think about deploying tiny white lies—like exaggerating your height, age and interest or even adding a country or two to those you’ve actually seen—all in the hopes to hook a potential date.
A kittenfisher is an expert at enhancing their dating profile. Be it with tiny tweaks (like embellishing their job title and lifestyle to sound more impressive), or full-blown clickbait antics (for instance, using old and heavily edited pictures of themselves to match the adjusted age description), a kittenfisher would bend the truth about anything to round favours from their matches. Heck, examples of the dating trend on the internet also include bald men—apologies, males with receding hairlines up till the nape of their necks—wearing hats in all their snaps.
Essentially, kittenfishing refers to a well-intended phenomenon: painting yourself in a more positive light. What harm could it possibly do, right? According to a study by Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project, more than half of online daters (54 per cent) admit that their matches have “seriously misinterpreted” themselves in their dating profiles. When Hinge surveyed its users they found that 38 per cent of men and 24 per cent of women reported being kittenfished on the platform. What’s more interesting is that only two per cent of men and one per cent of women admitted kittenfishing someone else. Simply put, the toxic dating strategy is so elusive that people are not even realising they’re doing it.
Research has additionally proved that men typically exaggerate their height while women are more prone to mess with details about their weight. Statistics collected by the dating app OkCupid further noted that the more attractive a photo, the more likely it is out of date.
Although kittenfishing is a lighter version of catfishing, the dating tactic can have serious consequences on a relationship. Sure, knocking a year or two off your age doesn’t seem like a big deal when you haven’t even set up a lunch date with your match yet, however, the further the in-person meetup goes, the more likely it will be that you’ve based the entire relationship on a lie. And we all know how that usually ends.
“The most important element for a successful, long-lasting relationship is trust, so when you lie in your profile, you’re only setting your date up for disappointment when their expectations don’t match reality,” Damona Hoffman, dating coach and host of the Dates & Mates podcast, told HuffPost. “You might be able to make it through a few first dates with secrets, but if your relationship evolves, eventually you will have to come clean. That could mean the end of an otherwise great partnership,” the expert continued. “It’s a missed opportunity to find someone who will love you as you are.”
By this point I’m pretty sure most of you are either recalling your experiences of being kittenfished or realising you might be guilty of the crime yourself—which has become commonplace in the dating world today. Either way, here are a few pointers to help spot kittenfishing before it gets out of hand, as recommended by psychologist Ana Jovanovic in an interview with NBC News.
If you pay close attention to the conversations with your potential match, you may notice contradictory details in their stories or “see them fail to respond to a relatively simple question about a topic they seem to be very passionate about.”
Next up is the absence of details surrounding the element of a person’s life that they’ve lied to you about. If, for example, someone has embellished their job title in their dating profile, they may avoid going into specifics about what their position entails as there may be a high chance they accidentally reveal the truth in the process of explaining it.
Lastly, according to Jovanovic, if it seems like your match has no flaws whatsoever, there’s a high chance they’re probably too good to be true. At this stage, it’s up to you to decide if you want to investigate further. But Jovanovic ultimately advises to ask yourself: What is the person trying to cover or lie about, how severe is the kittenfishing and how important is this to you? “You will need to make your decision on what to do based on the answer to this question,” the expert added.
Be it with an edited selfie or adding a few inches to your height, if you think you’ve kittenfished someone else, it’s time to address the speculations—once and for all. On these terms, Jovanovic recommends asking yourself the following questions and answering them honestly:
This is one of the most basic exercises you can do to analyse if you’ve been kittenfishing your matches. Imagine yourself showing up for a date with someone you’ve met online. Would they recognise you easily from your photos? Sure, we all have good angles, but are you intentionally tweaking the way you look on the internet a tad too far?
In an interview with Bustle, Chris Armstrong, relationship coach and founder of Maze of Love, explained how kittenfishing has become a common practice today—given how dating is a competitive sport and we all feel the pinch. “So we resort to embellishment,” Armstrong said. “We do what we need to gain an edge. Second to this, we believe it is harmless and that our charm and wit will win out in the end.” But the ugly truth is that even if you chant “I know I’m not really six feet but she’ll love my sense of humour,” you might just land a first date but blow all your chances of subsequent ones.
Disclaimer: the answer to this question may be a shocker if you believe you’ve engaged with the dating strategy in question.
A good beginners exercise is to get feedback on your dating profile from your close friends. Cringy, I know. But the insights you’d receive are bound to be the most honest ones—which will help you put your best foot forward and analyse if you’ve been misleading your matches all along.
Now, if you really think about it, kittenfishing has been a thing long before dating apps were even birthed into existence. Your parents might have won each other over with slight tweaks about their GPA and life goals. Heck, over here in India, families have been downright lying about their healthy dynamics to land matrimonial matches for centuries.
Though we won’t be able to eradicate kittenfishing altogether from the dating sphere anytime soon, it’s time to at least be self-aware of the toxic practice—and the earlier, the better.