Mary* was beaming while telling me about her new relationship. She told me how much Bob* “got her,” and that they had so much in common, and would spend all night talking over text. When I asked where they met, she was vague and “thought” they met at a party, later connecting on Snapchat. To my dismay, Bob lived on the other side of the country, and she was really unclear whether they met at a party. I told her about catfishing and explained the red flags. When she confronted Bob, he got mad that he was not being trusted. A month later, Mary was disappointed and heartbroken to report that Bob was pretending to be someone he wasn't, and she was, in fact, catfished.

Catfishing is when someone creates a fake online identify and fraudulent social media profile for the purpose of luring someone into a relationship. Males and females can be catfished; everyone is susceptible. Even celebrities have made headlines by falling prey to this type of manipulation. (According to Wikipedia, the term catfish comes from fishermen putting sea catfish in with the cod to nip at their tails and keep them active during overseas transport in order to produce more lively and fresh meat.)

A 2010 documentary called Catfish chronicled the relationship of a filmmaker named Nev who met and fell in love with a women he met online named ”Megan.” The film tells the story of what happens when Nev decides to meet her in person. Spoiler alert: “Megan” turns out to have a fake online profile and is not the person he thought she was.

With the popularity of the documentary, Catfish: The TV Show was created for MTV as a docu-series following the journeys of couples who finally meet face-to-face after being in a long-term online relationship. It's like watching a training wreck: really uncomfortable but you can’t stop watching. It's crazy, the time and effort some will put into creating and maintaining a fake persona. What’s even more surprising, these relationships will go on for YEARS--often over text or instant message--and the victim will have never confirmed that the person is real by either meeting in person or over video chat.

Catfishing, Sexting & Sex Trafficking

So why do parents need to be aware of catfishing? Sex traffickers often use this tactic to ensnare their victims. Trafficking often starts with someone posing as a different person online, usually someone close to the intended victim's age. They then tell the child everything they know he or she wants to hear to get them to let their guard down. The impostor will then manipulate them into sharing naked pictures and/or videos. Once the picture or video is sent, the power dynamic in the relationship changes and the trafficker now has something to use against the child to get them to do what they want.

Catfishing Red Flags

  • the person's profile page does not have very many photos with other people
  • the pictures on their page are professionally done
  • their social media account has very few friends
  • there aren't many comments or tags on their posts
  • the person gets mad when too many questions are asked
  • they are not willing to video chat or show their face (via Facetime, Duo, or Skype)
  • the person asks for money
  • they try to move things in the relationship along really quickly
  • a really attractive person with no connection to their victim or anyone they know randomly contacts them
  • it’s just too good to be true

Common trends

  • predators: an older person will catfish a child to get naked photos or videos, then coerce (or threaten) them into doing other things (“if you don’t do what I say I'll share your pictures (or video)" or “if you don’t do what I say I'll send your photo (or video) to your parents”)
  • gender identity issues: the catfisher is questioning their sexual orientation so takes on the identity of the opposite gender to engage in an online relationship they aren’t comfortable having in public
  • revenge: getting back at those who've bullied them by catfishing
  • bullying: a person (or group of people) behind a catfishing profile spread messages, videos, or pictures to publicly shame their victim
  • cheating: the catfisher is in a relationship with another person and carrying on a relationship online as well

What to do if it happens

If your child has fallen prey to a catfish, here's some guidance you can give:

  • don't give yourself a hard time, it happens to a lot of people
  • ignore, block, or delete the person from social media
  • alert a trusted adult, especially if you are being harassed or threatened by the person
  • end the relationship
  • allow yourself to have emotions around this relationship loss, including anger, loneliness and grief, it may take some time to get over it
  • keep yourself busy, get involved with activities
  • find new ways to meet people, in person
  • use your support system, not the people who tell you, “I told you so”
  • talk to a professional if things aren’t getting better

Parents, if your child is being catfished and they come to you, DON’T FREAK OUT. Remain calm and remember, how you handle this will set the stage for whether they come to you again in the future.

Teachable moment

Rent the documentary Catfish or watch MTV’s Catfish: The TV Show with your kids. This is a great opportunity to open the door to conversations about catfishing, and talking to strangers online.

Positives of Catfish: The TV Show

The show doesn’t glamorize catfishing. It shares true stories of real people being manipulated and hurt.

The show can be a good lesson on empathy and seeing the impact of this behavior on others.

They also dig into the motivation of the person who is catfishing: hurt people often hurt people.

 Negatives of Catfish: The TV Show

The show doesn’t address the darker side of catfishing where kids (teens and tweens) think they are in a relationship with a peer when in reality they are being groomed by a predator.

  *Names have been changed to protect client identities.

Cheryl Kosmerl, MSW, LCSW

Cheryl Kosmerl, MSW, LCSW

I'm a clinical social worker and child advocate. After more than 20 years of working with children and adolescents in a variety of settings I created Sexting Solutions, a successful program designed to teach kids to respect themselves and others, show empathy and stop abuse. Intended as an alternative to legal consequences for kids who were caught sexting, it focuses on building skills that develop a solid foundation for healthier adolescent years and beyond. Connect with me on LinkedIn by clicking the icon directly below.