The cringey internet trend so many are guilty of: What is Sadfishing?

Attention-seeking behaviour like ‘sadfishing’ has become prevalent online

Olivia Hebert
Los Angeles
Thursday 13 June 2024 21:55 BST
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Louise Thomas

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Anyone who uses social media will recognize that one chronic oversharer who posts cryptic quotes about self-worth on their Instagram Stories or vague captions hinting that karma will be coming for some unsuspecting someone.

Academic researchers have called this attention-seeking behavior “sadfishing” – the act of posting on social media for sympathetic comments and reactions.

The term was first coined by journalist Rebecca Reid in 2019 when it turned out that Kendall Jenner‘s vulnerable tale of her “debilitating” struggle with acne turned out to be a part of a disingenuous marketing ploy for her Proactiv partnership. Reid has since wrestled with creating the term, noting in a tweet that a term that was initially meant to criticize “celebrities deliberately withholding information for their own gain” is now being used to dissuade people from being vulnerable online.

“Lots of us sadfish sometimes, and that’s okay,” she added. “Attention seeking is a perfectly legitimate thing. There’s nothing wrong with wanting attention.”

Behavioral specialist and researcher Cara Petrofes has since defined “sadfishing” as the “a tendency of social media users to publish exaggerations of their emotional states to generate sympathy,” a departure from Reid’s use of the term to skewer celebrity culture. She and her fellow researchers explored the social media phenomenon in a 2021 paper published in the Journal of American College Health, intrigued by its prevalence as a “maladaptive” coping mechanism among college students.

Those with what pop psychology calls an anxious attachment style – characterized by a fear of abandonment, a strong need for reassurance, and codependent tendencies – are reportedly more prone to “sadfish” online.

“Our research showed that those who are anxiously attached tend to seek validation through others and need consistent friend activity and a higher number of online/in-person friendships,” Petrofes explained to the Huffington Post “That can lead to sadfishing.”

She added: “This leads us to believe that perhaps those with an anxious attachment and a correlated negative interpersonal experience are more likely to engage in maladaptive online behaviors such as feigning depression or sadness online to garner support they feel doesn’t otherwise exist.”

However, psychotherapist Tess Brigham argued that it is simply a part of being human to seek validation from our peers, and doesn’t necessarily mean that you have an anxious attachment style.

“It used to be that someone would ‘sadfish’ at the church picnic or a happy hour by telling everyone about their horrible day, and everyone would gather around,” the psychotherapist told the outlet, noting that the digital landscape has changed the way we seek sympathy from others. “But that’s not our world anymore, so this is how people get attention.”

A young man reads sad social media posts
A young man reads sad social media posts (Getty Images)

There’s a difference between “sadfishing” and legitimately being vulnerable online. “Sadfishing” may come in the form of a targeted quote about heartbreak that’s clearly about a recent ex, but someone posting a caption about struggling with depression may be sharing an actual cry for help or an attempt at connecting with others who may or may not feel the same way.

When people accuse others of performing sadness online for personal gain, it makes it more difficult for people to feel comfortable being earnest and vulnerable in online spaces. Someone accused of “sadfishing” may be at risk of experiencing lowered self-esteem, anxiety, and shame, according to the Head’s Conference. They may be dismissed by their family and friends for being an attention seeker and may be less likely to get the help and support they need.

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