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Not everything you read online is real, nor is everybody you meet. You have been “catfished” when you meet an individual online who created a fake profile for the purpose of deception. Catfishing varies in severity, from posting younger pictures of oneself to stealing another’s identity. Most commonly experienced in dating websites or social media accounts, catfishing has provoked an increasing amount of skepticism and fear when it comes to meeting people online. Check out Dr. B’s Cybersecurity and Red Flags Supplement for your Connected Family Agreement to start healthy family teaching conversations about protecting oneself from predatory online practices.

It started on Tinder…

Being a victim of catfishing can happen to anyone at any age. With more teens joining social media, they are exposed to not only same-age peers but also adults with bad intentions.

For example, my friend Sam had been online dating since her sophomore year of high school. She recently met a guy on Tinder and fell head over heels for him. Soon after meeting, they texted every day. At first, she suggested they FaceTime, but he always came up with some excuse to text only. Sam didn’t think much of it and continued to text with him whenever she had the chance. Eventually, she suggested they meet in person. But whenever the subject came up, he would ghost her for her a couple of days and then message her randomly, ignoring her suggestion. Since she was still so attached to him, she ignored the red flags.

While talking to a friend about her concerns, her friend shared that she was having a similar experience with her online boyfriend. When they compared notes and eventually photos, they realized it was the same guy using two different names on two different accounts. Once Sam discovered that he wasn’t completely honest about who he was, she stopped talking to him. Since then, she’s had a hard time trusting anybody online.

Adults and kids can be victims.

The popularized MTV show “Catfish: The TV Show,” gives the audience a deeper look into the world of catfishing. During each episode, the host helps a victim uncover the truth behind a catfishing incident. Each episode illustrates the complex reasons people create deceptive online identities to make up for deficits in their nonvirtual lives, such as:

  • They are insecure about their looks, so they steal someone else’s identity who they think is better looking – like wearing a virtual mask.
  • They pretend to be a different gender, perhaps experimenting before coming out of the closet.
  • In extreme cases, they are cyberstalking or seeking revenge from their victims.

It’s not just adults that are deceived by catfishing. In the Lifetime TV show, “I Catfished My Kid,” parents try to teach their teen a lesson about the dangers of talking to strangers online. In the pilot, two Ventura county teens were duped by an adult producer into thinking they were interacting with a peer. When he asked each victim to meet him in the park to watch his band practice, one of the teens complied. We see her walk to the park and then be confronted by her parents and the host of the show, a YouTube influencer. Dr. Bennett received production credit and helped with the emotional support on set. She describes feeling uncomfortable with the plot of deceiving a teen. However, to the benefit of millions of viewers, the show is an opportunity to teach kids how easy it is to be catfished.

We created our Screen Safety Toolkit, because talking to your kids isn’t enough. Because kids and teens often feel invincible online, even digital natives get duped.

Why do we fall for it?

Dr. Bennett believes that texting and online dating is one of the worst things to ever happen to singles. Although it offers immediate access to many options, she says it also exposes our psychological vulnerabilities to exploitive others.

For instance, Dr. B describes a phenomenon she’s seen in practice where the screen between us and our new partner allows us to confabulate a false truth, that our new dating partner is better than they actually are. Confabulation is the act of unconsciously creating imaginary facts to fill in for a loss of memory. People with dementia often do this. Dr. B says she sees cognitively healthy client confabulate when they identify a potential dating partner online. However, their brain isn’t filling in new facts because of memory loss, it’s because of hope.

In other words, with their dream dating profile in mind, online daters sometimes start out by identifying a partner that loosely fits their criteria. But, because they are so hopeful, they unconsciously go out of their way to convince themselves their date is their dream partner. A simple “I look forward to meeting you” text becomes a sign of affection, romance, and fidelity. They create a dream person in their heads before the date has even revealed their true selves.

Dr. Bennett also believes that online dating can trigger our hunting and gathering instinct. Too often, she sees people“keep an eye out” for a better partner, even when they are committed to their current one. By always looking for the next best thing, singles sabotage the relationship they’re in. After all, the thrill of the chase and the novelty of a new person can easily overshadow real-life traits that emerge later in the partnership.

Another element of online dating that she sees is that healthy users seem to move on and off dating sites quickly as they find their potential partners, but the predators seem to stay. Dr. B theorizes that is the reason there are more creeps on dating sites than in the general population. Online dating can help you find love, but it can also open one up to sexploitation, financial coercion, or online dating fraud. Although some dating sites verify users through other social media profiles and have safety tips, daters must beware.

Did you know that Instagram is the new hookup site? Predators even frequent child gaming sites! If your child is online, it’s time to teach them how to protect themselves.

Red flags that you are being catfished:

The person:

– is too good to be true

– demands too much contact or acts possessive

– is overly elaborative

– attempts to pull you in with dramatic stories of victimhood or emotional distress

– makes too many promises

How GKIS can help you prevent digital injuries in your family from catfishing:

  • Use your free Connected Family Agreement (on the GetKidsInternet Safe home page) to start a fun, negotiative conversations with your kids about how to:
    • love & protect friends and family online and offline,
    • operate with honesty & transparency
    • use screen smarts & digital permanence
    • digital citizenship, online reputation, & netiquette.
  • Teach B’s situational awareness red flag offline and online.
  • Protect against exploitive online content and predators with our GKIS Screen Safety Toolkit. Our honed-down, but still comprehensive, resource guide will help you choose the perfect combo of digital tools for filtering, monitoring, and more!
  • Follow Dr. B’s social media and digital device guidelines for kids and teens in her Connected Family Online Course

Thank you to GKIS intern, Nubia Bandek, for telling us all about catfishing.The hookup culture, which makes teens vulnerable to catfishing, is more prominent among teens than parents realize. Check out the GKIS article, Is Your Teen Hooking Up? for tips on how to have important conversations with your tweens and teens.

I’m the mom psychologist who will help you GetKidsInternetSafe.

Onward to More Awesome Parenting,

Tracy S. Bennett, Ph.D.
Mom, Clinical Psychologist, CSUCI Adjunct Faculty

Works Cited

[1.] Couch, D., Liamputtong, P., & Pitts, M. (2012). What are the real and perceived risks and dangers of online dating? Perspectives from online daters. Health, Risk & Society,14(7–8), 697–714.https://doi-org.summit.csuci.edu/10.1080/13698575.2012.720964

[2.] Menkin, J. A., Robles, T. F., Wiley, J. F., & Gonzaga, G. C. (2015). Online dating across the life span: Users’relationship goals. Psychology and Aging, 30(4), 987–993. https://doi-org.summit.csuci.edu/10.1037/a0039722.supp (Supplemental)

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