Social media 'sadfishing' trend harming children's mental health, but what is it?

Sadfishing can impact mental health. [Photo: Getty]
Sadfishing can impact mental health. [Photo: Getty]

A new social media trend called ‘sadfishing’ is harming the mental health of children, a new report has warned.

In basic terms sadfishing is when someone posts about an emotional problem in an attempt to attract attention or sympathy from followers.

The Cambridge dictionary defines sadfishing as the practice of writing about one’s unhappiness or emotional problems on social media, especially in a vague way, in order to attract attention and sympathetic responses.

According to experts the craze has been fuelled by celebrities who have been accused of posting exaggerated claims about their emotional problems to generate sympathy and draw clicks onto their sites.

But while people are quick to criticise celebrities for overdoing the sympathy calls, new research has found young people facing genuine distress are often accused of jumping on the bandwagon when they turn to the internet for support.

The new study, by Digital Awareness UK (DAUK) found 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 same publicity seeking bandwagon.

In some cases this rejection can go on to damage teenagers’ already fragile self-esteem, with some reporting that they have been bullied as a consequence.

And in extreme examples some are left vulnerable to sexual ‘grooming’ online.

READ MORE: Mental health warning over children as young as two accessing social media

The study, commissioned by the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC), is based on face-to-face interviews with more than 50,000 children aged 11 to 16.

“DAUK is concerned about the number of students who are bullied for sadfishing (through comments on social media, on messaging apps or face-to-face), thus exacerbating what could be a serious mental health problem. We have noticed that students are often left feeling disappointed by not getting the support they need online,” the report says.

“Groomers can also use comments that express a need for emotional support as a platform to connect with young people and gain their trust, only to try and exploit it at a later point,” it continues.

“At a time when young people are forming and shaping their identities, it’s understandable why they would choose to use social media as a platform for gauging opinions from others. However, in doing so, they are of course opening themselves up to abusive comments. In addition, positive feedback can result in increased self-esteem while negative feedback can reduce it.”

But despite the concerning findings, the report notes that youngsters are becoming more tech-savvy and are more likely to manage their own use of technology responsibly.

Chris Jeffery, chairman of the HMC wellbeing working group and headmaster of Bootham School in North Yorkshire, said: "It is encouraging to read of the growing signs of increased control that many young people are taking over their use of technology, but it is also helpful to know new ways in which it is proving to be a burden for them as ."

Charlotte Robertson, co-founder of DAUK, added: "Over the last year we've seen the digital landscape evolve at such rapid pace - particularly when it comes to the prevalence of data misuse, access to anonymous platforms and increased sharing of upsetting content.

"This has left many parents feeling overwhelmed by how best to empower their children to navigate the online world safely.”

Sadfishing could impact teenagers' mental health [Photo: Getty]
Sadfishing could impact teenagers' mental health [Photo: Getty]

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The report comes as it was revealed last month that teenagers who spend more than three hours a day on social media may be at higher risk of mental health problems.

Findings from 6,595 youngsters aged 12 to 15 in the US found those who used social media more heavily were more likely to report issues such as depression, anxiety and loneliness, as well as aggression and anti-social behaviour, than teenagers who did not use social media.

Late last year a study published by NHS digital revealed that 11-19 year olds who suffer from mental health issues are more likely to use social media every day.

That prompted new guidance suggesting NHS psychiatrists should be encouraged to ask under-18s with mental health issues about their social media usage.

The Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCP) suggests that psychiatrists should ask whether using social media is impacting their school work, sleep, eating habits and general mood.

But further research surrounding the topic of social media use and mental health in teenagers in the summer suggested it is the side effects of social media use, such as lack of sleep, that could present more of a problem.

The findings come from the first major study to analyse how heavy social media use could potentially damage mental health.

The study, published in the Lancet Child and Adolescent Health journal, indicates that while frequent use of social media does appear to be linked to having a negative impact on mental health, the effects are not direct.

Instead researchers suggest it could be down to social media users forgoing other activities, such as sleep and exercise, or that it opens the door to cyberbullying.