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Understanding ‘sadfishing’: An attention-seeking measure or a cry for help?

We all come across sadfishing quite regularly on social media feeds. But, should we ignore such posts or reach out to the concerned person? Experts elucidate

sadfishingThe online behaviour of fishing for sympathy and attention is not new (Source: Pixabay)

In 2019, when Kendall Jenner opened up about her “debilitating” struggle with acne, she received a great deal of sympathy and attention from her millions of followers. However, it was short-lived as everyone soon realised that the Instagram post was a paid endorsement for a skincare brand. This led to journalist Rebecca Reid coining the term ‘sadfishing’ – an act of making exaggerated emotional claims online to gain attention, likes, followers or sympathy.

While sadfishing is a much more recent term, the online behaviour of fishing for sympathy and attention is not new, and most people are familiar with the act – whether they have seen others doing it or have done it themselves. Remember those crying selfies, cryptic quotes and emotional stories? Yes, you’ve got it right!

But, is every vulnerable post made on social media an attempt to get sympathy and attention? The issue is far more complicated! Let’s dive deeper into sadfishing to know what exactly it means, and how to deal with such posts.

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What is sadfishing?

To put it simply, sadfishing is a behavioural trend where people share deeply emotional and personal content on social media, to generate sympathy or attention. “It is imperative that we look behind the nomenclature here. Sadfishing carries a connotation of deliberate exaggeration, manipulation of opinion, and manufacturing of a story that is ultimately detrimental to those who are actually posting out of distress and wanting to connect with others,” therapist Shoma Chakrawarty said.

The expert stressed that it is important to acknowledge that “for every single sadfishing post that is a publicity gimmick, there may be many more individuals posting about their very real distress and hoping to be noticed and supported”.

Why do people indulge in sadfishing?

People make sadfishing posts on social media, according to Dr Sugami Ramesh, Clinical Psychologist and Senior Consultant, Apollo Hospitals, Bangalore, because of the easy access of such platforms, unlike in the olden days. In the digital age, where social media has become an extension of self, people tend to express their emotions which they otherwise would not.

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Explaining the same, Mimansa Singh Tanwar, Clinical psychologist and Head, Fortis School Mental Health Program, Fortis healthcare Ltd noted, “Unhealthy ways of emotional expression have always been prevalent and can be seen in some individuals with low self-esteem or lack the skills to cope with emotional dysregulation and difficulties. Social media becomes another medium of expression of emotions where one tends to seek validation and engage in conformity.”

Chakrawarty said, “Adolescents and young adults are traversing an intense journey of becoming themselves” (Source: Getty Images/Thinkstock)

To understand why people indulge in sadfishing on social media, it is crucial to determine the age group which is more susceptible. Mental health experts argue that adolescents and young adults are more likely to indulge in such online behaviour. According to the Tech Control Annual Report by HMC and Digital Awareness UK, upset youths between the ages of 11 and 16 look for emotional support online and feel worse when others call them out for seeking attention. It’s because they’re from the age group that suffers the utmost from loneliness.

Explaining the reason behind the same, Chakrawarty said, “Adolescents and young adults are traversing an intense journey of becoming themselves. They may often feel like their struggles are incredibly unique and deeply misunderstood by others. Their own life stories, along with their pain and losses, can take on the proportion of a personal myth that they need to share with the world and receive support for. Significant mental health challenges like difficult family relationships, coming to terms with one’s identity, and finding their feet in colleges and first jobs are also gruelling experiences.”

Is it mere attention-seeking?

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Perhaps, not. While many tend to dismiss such posts terming them “attention-seeking” and “sympathy-gaining”, there’s a possibility of a larger psychological issue at play. “To say that it is done to gain attention or sympathy would be stereotyping and labelling the behaviour in a judgemental way,” Tanwar stated.

Agreed Chakrwarty and said, “What we call attention-seeking most often is nothing but the response of a human being in distress. We live in a time that is marked by unprecedented levels of mental agony, social unrest, and a near-collapse of the world as we knew it, in the pandemic. Such times are bound to reflect in our moods, emotions, and life experiences, slices of which get depicted on social media as the canvas.”

As such, it is crucial to look beyond the post and explore the larger problems: the pervasive loneliness, the feelings of inadequacy, or the overwhelm from the relentless and demanding lives that people lead today. “Other challenges like trouble articulating one’s emotions or finding it hard to navigate conflict through dialogue can also show up in stark displays or overly personal content being posted. These instances may often underscore gaps in skills that one is yet develop with regard to emotions, intimacy, communication, and conflict resolution. Persistent oversharing is neither a proof of vulnerability nor authenticity. There is, of course, the possibility of people using social media to validate their struggles and then loop in a product endorsement or a paid partnership,” the expert explained further.

The risks associated with sadfishing

For attention or for help – whatever may be the reason – the outcomes of sadfishing may not always be favourable. “The downsides of sadfishing on social media platforms are the trouble of cyberbullying, especially when your posts are real and authentic. For instance, being made fun of or called names for feeling depressed or anxious can beget a formerly vulnerable child to sink further into depression, experience more anxiety, or start to believe that they truly don’t count,” Dr Pallavi Joshi, Consultant Psychologist at Sri Balaji Action Medical Institute, New Delhi said.

Calling it “counterproductive”, Chakrawarty added, “It is purportedly a way of asking for support that ultimately leads to questioning the need for the same support. Additionally, support received through sadfishing posts may not be as robust as the benefits of real person-to-person conversations of distress have. The neurological benefits of social support rest on its integrity, which may be hard to establish on social media.”

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She highlighted that the addictive nature of social media likes is another drawback of sadfishing. “We know enough from research to predictably link validation to negatively themed posts, and greater time spent on social media to a greater propensity to depressive symptoms. Some of this is to do with the potential social media has off triggering of a cycle of posts seeking validation, and that validation that follows feeling hollow or transient.”

Cyberbullying is a possible consequence of sadfishing (File photo)

Tanwar asked people to develop healthy ways of coping with distressing situations – talking to friends and family, engaging in activities that bring in a sense of calm and positive feelings or reaching out to a mental health professional if you recognise that emotional reactions are not in your control and the intensity of distress continues to persist.

What parents/guardians can do

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The role of parents when it comes to their child’s online behaviour can’t be ignored. As such, parents must monitor their social media activities to understand the possible mental distress they might be going through and provide them with a safe space to discuss the same with you. “The best thing to would be to discuss their issues. Show concern and have a healthy conversation with them. Make children feel comfortable to discuss and do not force them to also discuss. Give them the space,” Dr Ramesh said.

Here are some things you must do as a parent, according to Dr Joshi.

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*Examine and limit your child’s social media use.
*Discuss bolstering issues with your child.
*Teach them how to take social media breaks.
*Teach your child that social media is not a true reflection of people’s lives.
*Encourage physical activity and outside interests.

How should you respond to sadfishing posts?

We all come across sadfishing quite regularly on our social media feeds. The question is – should we ignore them or reach out to the concerned person? Experts elucidate.

“A good starting point would be to reach out to the person directly and ask them how they are doing after checking in with our own capacity to listen,” Chakrawarty said. Further, it is suggested to respond to such posts empathetically, not critically.

Here are some things you can do.

*If you see a sad post, contact the person via private message, phone call, or in-person discussion.
*Check in with your friends and offer them encouraging words.
*Inform your friend that you are keeping an eye on them and do not judge them.
*Encourage a friend to seek comfort if they feel vulnerable.
*Being able to reach out online can be empowering for some people. It can help them have their passions validated and their voices heard.

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First published on: 04-07-2022 at 12:30 IST
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