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With social media and public servers for games, your child is likely to come across many different types of people. Just like in real life (IRL), they may come to be great friends. There is concern—and for good reason—if this is safe. A “catfish” is a term commonly used in popular culture to refer to someone who presents themself online to be someone or something that they are not. In our GKIS article “What You Need to Know About Online Catfishing,” we covered information about the rise of the term catfish, the psychology behind it, and certain red flags. In this article, we will cover how to best recognize catfishing and how your child can more safely meet an online friend once you, as the parent or guardian, have determined it is safe.

The Benefits of Making Friends Online

The internet displays a diverse range of people from many different cultures, ethnicities, identities, and lifestyles. Exposure to people different than themselves can be a great learning opportunity and help your child develop empathy and a greater perspective of the world. Dr. Tracy Bennett, Screen Safety Expert and Founder of GetKidsInternetSafe offers weekly parent and family coaching to help parents optimize the benefits of screen tech while minimizing risk. To learn more about her coaching videos, check out the GetKidsInternetSafe App. Sign up now and the first 30 days are free!

For kids who may be of a marginalized community themselves, like those who identify as LGBTQ+ for example, online contacts can be a lifesaver. Not only can kids have fun with their online friends who share similar interests and values, these friendships may also provide a sense of understanding, bonding, and representation.

In a 2014 study by Van Zalk and colleagues, shy adolescent participants who had online friends reported fewer depressive symptoms than those who were friendless.[1] Also, they found that having online friends didn’t distract the subjects from making IRL friends. Instead, online friends improved real-life friendships. This suggests that online friendships may boost self-esteem and social skills, so kids gain the confidence to seek friends offline too.

Making friends online may also be easier and more realistic for some kids, especially if they have trouble approaching new peers in real life. Further, if your child feels outcasted, they might search for an online community with or without your permission. So, preparing your child for safer online exploration may be your best option.

My Catfish Story

I’m a 23-year-old CSUCI intern for Dr. Bennett. In 2013, I joined an online friend group from a public Minecraft server. We would regularly participate in Skype group calls to play. All of us except one person—who I will call Sam—would regularly show our faces on video camera. Because we often saw each other, we felt we knew each other. But Sam refused to show himself on camera. Instead, he led us to believe that he was who he said he was by occasionally updating his profile picture.

Sam was really handsome and he eventually started dating one of the girls in our friend group. They tried meeting a few times, but something always came up where Sam had to cancel. We were in awe of his skills in the game and he gave us some assurance by going on camera although it was in a dark room.

Over a year into our friendship, Sam accidentally let the camera slip to reveal his face. Although it was a relief to see that we were, in fact, talking to someone our age, we were unsettled that the photos he was using were not him. Imagine the ways Sam could have been dangerous for us in slightly different circumstances.

How to Prevent Being a Victim of Catfishing

Verify Identity Through Social Media History

It is rare for a person to not have a digital footprint these days. However, with kids – they are often new users. If your child’s new friend does have social media, be suspicious if all their profiles are new.

Red flags for catfishing on Instagram might be if the person’s photos were all posted recently, if they are not tagged in any photos, or if the photos they are tagged in are from new accounts or accounts with under 30 followers.

To determine if a Snapchat account is new, look at the person’s Snap Score. A Snap Score is a feature shown on a Snapchat friend’s profile that displays the amount of live Snapchats the friend has received and sent. A Snap Score lower than 100 could indicate that the online friend recently created their account.

Other Snapchat Tricks

Snapchat offers a few features in addition to video calling. For example, you can send pictures and videos that have just been taken. One way to game this exchange is for the catfish to use their phone to take live pictures of preexisting pictures from another device.

A good way to challenge this deceptive catfish trick is to insist that the online friend send a personalized video that mentions your child’s name or a specific activity of your choosing. A few years ago, sending a selfie holding a sign with a name would have been satisfactory. But now with easily accessible editing software, written messages on paper or signs can be altered.

Opt for Video Chatting

Live video chatting can take place in many different forms through platforms like FaceTime, Skype, Facebook, or Zoom. We at GKIS especially like Facebook’s Messenger Kids. Dr. B is on Facebook’s Youth Advisory Team and has enjoyed having a part in its development from the beginning! She says she loves Messenger Kids because it doesn’t expose kids to ads and is the walled garden with parent transparency we’ve all been hoping for. Live interaction between two people makes it difficult to catfish. Even if the person tries to recycle prerecorded media in an attempt to appear live, it won’t look authentic because live chat conversation typically requires personal response.

Meet in Public

Unfortunately, there is no way to be 100% certain until you meet the friend in person. With deep fake technology, even personalized messages can be created.

If you’ve vetted your child’s friends online and you feel it is time for them to meet, meeting in public with your supervision is a good first option.

Meet their Parent(s)

Meeting the friend’s family can also help develop confidence in supporting your child’s new friendship. That way future plans can be run through the parents first.

Have Fun

Most importantly, have fun! Your child may have been waiting for months to meet their friend and now they finally can. You can also take comfort in the fact that you helped your child bring their newfound virtual friendship into real life.

Social Media Readiness Course

As kids get older, they must demonstrate knowledge, capability, and resilience to gain independence. We recommend our GKIS Social Media Readiness Course to help improve your tween’s or teen’s online experience by teaching the potential risks on social media and providing them with emotional wellness tools. As your teen works through the course, there are mastery quizzes at the end of each module so you can take track their knowledge-build course.

Thanks to CSUCI intern, Avery Flower for researching the pros and cons of creating friends online and co-authoring this article.

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


Photo Credits

Photo by Vonecia Carswell on Unsplash

Photo by Julia M Cameron on Pexels

Photo by Grzegorz Walczak on Unsplash

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels

Works Cited

[1]The Cybersmile Foundation. (n.d.). Catfishing. Retrieved 2020, from https://www.cybersmile.org/what-we-do/advice-help/catfishing

[2]Van Zalk, M. H. W., Van Zalk, N., Kerr, M., & Stattin, H. (2014). Influences between online‐exclusive, conjoint and offline‐exclusive friendship networks: The moderating role of shyness. European Journal of Personality28(2), 134–146. https://doi-org.summit.csuci.edu/10.1002/per.1895

Avery Flower
Avery Flower
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