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Social media ‘sadfishing’ could leave kids vulnerable, agency claims

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A study from wellbeing agency Digital Awareness UK, commissioned by the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, has found that young students encouraged to share their troubles online could in fact suffer further as a result.

The report describes the newly coined phenomenon of ‘sadfishing’; people posting openly online about their sadness and other emotional troubles. This could lead to the person receiving support, attention and sympathy, but it could also backfire.

“[Digital Awareness UK] 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 excacerbating what would be a serious mental health problem,” the report says. “We have noticed that students are often left feeling disappointed by not getting the support they need online.”

The findings of the study were based on face-to-face interviews with more than 50,000 children aged between 11 and 16.

According to the study, young people who turn to the internet to share their hurt could end up being ignored and feeling deeply disappointed, as well as being bullied and accused of attention seeking. An unnamed Year Seven student told the researchers that he used Instagram to share his feelings when he was upset, which could garner sympathy online but also lead to accusations of ‘sadfishing’ at school. “Sharing my feelings online has made me feel worse in some ways, but supported in others,” he commented.

The report also warns that some children could find themselves inadvertently attracting sexual predators who provide sympathy to gain trust. “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 suggests.

The report describes the case of a young girl who began an online relationship with a man after sharing her experiences of depression online and he reached out to share his own experiences with her. The relationship ended after he pressured her into sharing explicit photos and she discovered that he was much older than he claimed.

Despite these concerning findings, the report acknowledged that young people are tech-savvy and likely to manage their own tech use with a sense of responsibility.

The study was commissioned by the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, an association of elite private-school headteachers based in the UK and Ireland. Chris Jeffery, chair of the association’s ‘wellbeing working group’ 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.”

Social media and excessive screen time are frequently blamed for causing mental health complications in young people, although researchers have raised concerns that there is insufficient evidence to confirm whether this assessment is accurate. A recent University of Arizona study has suggested that increased smartphone use could be a symptom of depression and loneliness, rather than a cause.

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