What Is Catfishing? The Dangers of Fake Online Identities

Haley Zapal | August 03, 2021 | Digital Citizenship Internet Safety Tips

What is catfishing header image with fish in front of phone screen

Catfishing is a colorful term for an activity that’s been around as long as there’s been an internet — namely, pretending to be someone else online. The aquatic term for fake online personas was made popular by a movie and then a long-running reality TV show on MTV called Catfish. It examined the ways in which a catfish (the person doing the deceiving) misleads others, as well as the why behind it all. If you’re wondering “what is catfishing’s effect on young people?”— look no further. We’ll go into what it looks like, why kids are especially vulnerable, and warning signs a child’s friend may not really be who they say they are.

What is Catfishing?

Catfishing is the act of creating a false identity and then interacting with someone for a specific purpose, usually to “lure” them into some sort of relationship. This can include mild flirting all the way to years-long partnerships. The catch? These people have never and will never meet in real life, despite the fact that they can spend hours a day communicating with someone.

Thanks to smartphones, it’s incredibly easy to pretend to be somebody else online. All it takes is a couple of photos, a different user name, and voila — you’re in business. But to be a successful catfish, it takes extraordinary amounts of planning and manipulation. Finding photos for both profile and feed images, creating new email addresses for fake Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat accounts — the lengths people will go to in order to keep up the charade are mind-boggling. They also have to stay “in character” when they’re messaging so they don’t slip up.

How It Works

You may be wondering why a person would believe a catfish and carry on an internet-only relationship. For catfishing to work, the victim has to also want to believe that the catfish is real — whether because of loneliness, desire, friendship, or something more.

This isn’t to say that the victim is at fault, it’s just that the catfish knowingly uses flattery and emotional manipulation to kickstart a connection and then nurtures it steadily. And because a catfish isn’t who they say they are, they’ll constantly come up with excuses for why they can’t meet in real life or video chat. If they did, it would instantly give up their real identity. Common excuses include:

  • “My phone is broken.”
  • “I’m shy.”
  • “My mom’s home.”
  • “The internet’s acting wonky.”

Of course, any one of these reasons could be valid for a real-life friend, but when they happen every single time communication is attempted, it’s a sign that something may not be right. 

Why People Catfish

There are many different reasons why a person would pursue a fake relationship, ranging from boredom all the way to harmful ulterior motives.

  • Low self-esteem: Some individuals may lack the confidence to interact with people as their real selves. By creating more attractive versions of themselves with fake photos, they can live out their romantic fantasies.
  • Jokes: Sadly, catfishing can happen just because a person is bored and wants attention. It may also be a very targeted form of cyberbullying among kids, especially as a way to pick on less social teens and tweens.
  • Revenge: Former romantic partners may turn to catfishing as a way to get back at their ex. Here, the catfish gets satisfaction knowing that their ex is getting emotionally invested in a fake relationship, which will inevitably either fail or be revealed.
  • Fraud: Some catfish will start relationships for the sole purpose of getting money out of somebody, whether through fabricated sob stories, extortion, or other deceptive means.
  • Grooming: When an adult catfishes a child for the purposes of eventual abuse, it’s called grooming. It’s a crime whether the predator pretends to be a child or not, however. 

How Kids Are Especially Vulnerable

Kids don’t always assume the worst of people, especially when someone is being nice to them online. For victims of bullying-type catfish, there’s often a very real desire to fit in or be loved. A shy teen or tween who thinks they’re being messaged by the most popular kid in school may want nothing more than for that to be true. Their critical thinking skills and skepticism overlook warning signs and missing information in the hopes that maybe it’s happening just like in the movies. Sadly, it’s often just mean-spirited classmates preying on their vulnerability. 

As for adults who pretend to be kids, it’s manipulation and abuse, plain and simple. Predators are known to target lonely kids or children from less stable households. They may pretend to be a kid at first, or simply lie about their age. Slowly, the adult grooms their victim by paying them compliments, listening to them, or buying them gifts. This may pave the way for an eventual in-person assault. Though it doesn’t have to — a child and a predator never have to even meet for abuse to occur.

Warning Signs to Look Out For

Not sharing personal info

Creating all aspects of a fake person’s life from scratch takes a lot of work, so it’s not surprising that a catfish may not have thought of everything. Noticeable gaps could include details about their family, what classes they’re taking (if a kid), or even what part of a city they live in.

Only text chats

As we mentioned before, a catfish can never expose their real identity, which means that real-time video chatting or meeting up in person is definitely off the table. To make up for this, they’ll pour lots of energy into text messaging and DMing.

Few candid photos

A catfish usually has to have at least a few photos of the person they’re pretending to be. But recent, updated photos — like a selfie with the giraffes if you said you were going to the zoo that day — aren’t an option for a catfish.

Asking for or giving you things

For the catfish looking to take advantage of people for monetary gain, they’ll begin by asking for small favors or gifts. It may progress to online gift cards, Venmo requests, and more. The same may also be true in reverse: a catfish may shower a victim with presents to win them over.

A sparse social media account

Having a believable feed on Facebook or Instagram is a little like your credit history — the further back it goes, the better it is. This is because when a catfish creates a brand-new persona online, they’re starting from scratch. They’ll get around this by often putting “new account” in their profile to explain away their lack of posts. 

No Snapchat

For kids, one huge red flag is not having a Snapchat account. This is because Snapchat messaging consists almost entirely of spur-of-the-moment photos and videos. Not having one means that you’re probably not down to send up-to-date pics of yourself, which catfishes definitely can’t do.

Lack of online friends

Getting people to follow a fake profile can be tricky, but it’s not impossible. What is really hard, however, is having a usual group of friends to comment, like, and tag you frequently on these apps. A noticeable lack of consistent interaction from peers (especially for young people) is a pretty big red flag. Keep in mind, however, that a catfish could have fake, extra “friend” accounts they use to make their own posts more realistic.

Talking to Your Child about Online Strangers

Often, seeing is believing — especially for kids if you ask them if they know what catfishing is. That’s why our team created a video to show just how easy it is for an adult to create a fake social media account and use it to start conversations with kids. Children may think they’re invincible when it comes to knowing who their friends are online, but predators can be skilled at tricking people. 

Make sure you have open and ongoing conversations about online strangers, and that your kids feel comfortable telling you about who they talk to online. If you’re worried about catfishing and need a digital safety net, Bark helps parents protect their kids from dangers like these. Alerts are sent when conversations may indicate a large age gap or potentially abusive behavior so you can help keep them safe online and in real life. 

About Bark

Bark is a comprehensive online safety solution that empowers families to monitor content, manage screen time, and filter websites to help protect their kids online. Our mission is to give parents and guardians the tools they need to raise kids in the digital age.

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