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What is sadfishing?

Kendall Jenner and Instagram influencers are being blamed for a so-called new phenomenon and trend

“Sadfishing”: it’s a word that’s doing the rounds right now, meant to describe a recent internet phenomenon where someone shares their personal problems to get sympathy on social media. A performance of misery or distress, aimed to hook an audience or drum up publicity. The neggy cousin of the humblebrag, if you will, sometimes answered with a ‘U okay hun?’.

The term started out after a slew of celebrities began posting about their mental health and emotional issues – from Justin Bieber to mid-level influencers – and according to the endless articles that have appeared online over the last week, Kendall Jenner is among those to blame for the “trend”, which young people have apparently started copying. 

Sadfishing has been described as “toxic” and “harming” in turn (by the usual tabloid suspects), as the latest moral panic from parents about what children get up to the internet – but is it even a real “trend”? And if it is, is it really that bad for us? 

To start with, sadfishing isn’t a new thing. It seems like the Metro was the first to use the phrase in this way in 2018, after Kendall Jenner’s Instagram post announcing her appointment as the  face of acne brand Proactiv. In January, Kris Jenner teased that a ‘raw and personal’ announcement was coming from Kendall, but fans were disappointed to find out that it was all a part of a new campaign to shill skincare, and fair enough.

So, why is everyone talking about sadfishing again now, nine months later? According to new research by Digital Awareness UK (DAUK), and released this week, sadfishing is being seen as a real problem. From face-to-face interviews with over 50,000 UK pupils aged 11 to 15, the report found that sadfishing not only exists but that it has negative effects. Commissioned by headteachers, the report concluded that rather than making you feel better, sadfishing can actually make you feel empty or disappointed. 

One year seven student who was interviewed admitted to researchers that he used Instagram to post about problems he was having at home, but – despite people commenting and liking his post – the next day, at school, he got accused of sadfishing for attention. "Sharing my feelings online has made me feel worse in some ways but supported in others,” he said. 

Teenagers in the study reported that they had also been bullied as a result of sadfishing. “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," the report read. “We have noticed that students are often left feeling disappointed by not getting the support they need online.” 

In other words, by posting about your emotional problems, you are opening yourself up to the risk that you might not get the response that you want. But what the results of the study seem to lack is context and nuance: who is posting what, where, and who is responding? How do we really define what’s a genuine cry for help and what is a cry for attention, and an we actually ever? Is there that much of a line between the two, and isn’t posting anything online a form of fishing? 

“For many young people, so-called sadfishing – or maybe, just being present and aware of your emotions – is an opportunity to find a sympathetic digital ear, and build a support network online”

In many ways, sadfishing can be compared to the phenomenon of hot, muscular gay men or toned women posting about their insecurities or body image issues (supposedly) for likes  online. But while in some cases it might seem improbable that someone with the textbook “perfect body” could experience low self-esteem, it’s still totally possible. After all, self-esteem is to do with your mind as much as your body, and actually low self-esteem is what sends a lot of us to the gym to begin with. 

You could argue that it’s the same with sadfishing: if you’re feeling the need to post about your emotions online, it’s likely there is something you need. It’s difficult to tell from a social media post alone whether that’s attention or affirmation. In fact, only when a brand is involved (say Proactiv) can we really suspect that someone might have ulterior motives. For many young people, so-called sadfishing – or maybe, just being present and aware of your emotions – is an opportunity to find a sympathetic digital ear, and build a support network online.

Both phenomenons also prompt the question: is there a point of success or privilege when you’re not allowed to be sad anymore?

While it’s difficult to work out whether people’s cries for help are real or disingenuous then, according to the DAUK study, there is a more important issue with sadfishing that young people need to watch out for: that it could make them vulnerable to grooming. 

“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,” the people behind the study explained. In one account from their research, a teenage girl said that after she posted about her depression online she began a relationship with someone much older than he claimed to be, who had responded with his own experiences. 

In summary of the research, Charlotte Robertson, co-founder of DAUK, said: “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.” 

But adults can’t watch out for everything kids do on the internet. Young people should be educated around and protected from real dangers like grooming, but as for a lot of how we should and shouldn’t behave online, to some extent, just like life offline, we have to work it out for ourselves. 

In the mean time, “sadfishing” is an unhelpful term – its very existence encourages us to interrogate whether to take people’s problems seriously, rather than taking them at face value.