The Two-Sided Face of Teen Catfishing

What do you do when your teen is a victim, or worse yet an imposter?

Posted Apr 30, 2013

Recently I was contacted by someone who was trying to understand why a friend's teen would pretend to be someone she's not online. In an effort to help explain several possible reasons to her, I began to wonder if this is a common situation? I frequently try to warn parents about their teen becoming a victim, but should I also do something for parents whose teen is the catfisher? A while ago I wrote a blog on Catfishing and the dangers associated with it, but now I want to take a two-sided approach to the topic one from a victim's stance and the other from an impostor's perspective. To begin, let’s define catfishing.

What is Catfishing?

Well it’s not the type of fishing you’re going to see on an episode of River Monsters. No, this type of fishing occurs when someone creates a fictitious or fraudulent profile, most often for the purpose of pursuing a deceptive internet relationship. So, how do teens get tangled in a catfishing line? Well, it all begins with meeting and developing a relationship with someone online and the rest is history… Online you can be and do anything you want, under a fake name, right? Come on, it's not hard to create a fake profile. As a matter of fact it's quite simple. Heck, you can even create multiple ones and that's just what an expert fisher does. Plus, they know where to cast the line and how to wait patiently until they get a tug. Then like any fisher, they set the hook and reel the victim in.

The Victim

So, here you are falling in love with and divulging personal information to someone you really don’t know. You begin to trust and feel as though you really know this person. Before long your “friend” may want to “meet up” or “hook up”. Sure, you may be thinking, "I’d never do that," but what about a vulnerable and desperate teen who has a strong desire for love and acceptance? Can they resist the urge? According to a study released in the 2013 February Journal of Pediatrics it doesn't seem so. In fact, 30% of teen girls in the study admitted that they met up with a stranger in person after initially meeting them online. This is extremely concerning as predators seek out these vulnerable teens and their intentions can range from sexual relations to something as severe as sex trafficking.

I recently did a two-part blog on teen sex trafficking Part I and Part II and how it’s a growing problem facing this nation today. A lot of Traffickers use the internet to deceptively entice teens into an industry which holds fake promises of modeling, traveling, becoming famous, and receiving a lot of money. Teens who desire these things blindly follow the trafficker into a trap that's hard to escape from. Aside from trafficking, catfishing is gaining media popularity and predators are being lured out because of it.

Since the 2010 release of Catfish, it seems as though catfishing is increasing in popularity. (film MTV even airs a show called “Catfish”. If watch that show you'll quickly discover that most people on the show are insecure and lonely, so they use their fictitious profile to escape the real world by creating an identity that embraces strength, confidence, and all of the other qualities they desire to possess.

Catfishing is so popular with predators that NBC even monopolized on the issue by creating the show “To Catch A Predator” with host Chris Hansen in which people created an online teen profile and lured older men into their homes with the hopes of a sexual encounter. Once the predator arrived they were often taken into custody. Many police departments have specially trained internet agents scoping the "net" for these online predators.

Oftentimes, police will create a false online persona to lure out potential suspects. Just earlier this year, Florida Police baited and caught over 50 men just by going catfishing. The police found the predators by fishing around on social networking and online gaming sites. These men ranged in age from 19-60 and were teachers, students and even businessmen. So, many of these online predators can be people that you respect and interact with in your day to day dealings. Aside from sexual pedophiles using catfishing as a means of luring out young people, many teens use it as a method of bullying.

Cyberbullying

People have been falsifying information for eons, but since the beginning of the internet it has become more prevalent. Now people can easily create a fake profile (sometimes numerous accounts) and use the information shared to hurt another person. We have seen again and again how teens are using the internet as a tool to hurt one another on social media sites. Catfishing is another form of bullying. If a person uses technology to cause repeated harm to another - then plain and simple, it’s cyberbullying.

How do you protect your teen?

Parents protect your teen from becoming a victim by following these safe guard tips:

1. Don't give out personal information online. That means, your full name, address, where you go to school, where you work, or who your parents are. With the internet it’s easy to find someone and then zoom in via satellite to see where they live.

2. Don’t trust anyone, especially if you don’t know them from face to face encounters. People lie and all you are seeing are words on a screen. Even if you’re on Skype or FaceTime, who is to say the person is who they say they are?

3. Date people you know from school, work, church, synagogue, etc.

4. Don’t post questionable or risqué pictures of yourself. This includes those sleepover, beach or pool vacation pics.

5. Don't let your teen meet people he or she has met online alone. If your teen already has an online relationship and is reluctant to give it up, make sure you speak with the online friend's parents and arrange a time to meet all together.

6. Create a half-way profile that doesn't reveal too much. Only half-way describe yourself on your site. As far as pictures go, post a pet or better yet an Avatar.

7. Search the internet for people. Do a little digging on your own to learn what you can about your online friend. While you’re searching go ahead and have your teen “Google” himself/herself. Make sure nothing too revealing comes up. Next click "images" and see what photos pop up.

8. Remember there is no such thing as the perfect person. If it looks too good to be true then it probably is.

9. If the person you’re interacting with has many of the same interests that you do it may not be coincidence. Often catfishers will create a profile that will mirror your own as an effort to get you to take the bait and start a conversation.

10. Find out how many of your "friends" have actually met the person face to face.

11. Check out his/her pictures. People usually have a variety of pictures with family and friends with tags and comments. Catfishers, on the other hand will use more professional photos that look too good to be true. Probably because they've stolen someone's picture online as their own.

12. Lastly, if you've been hurt by someone who posted a fake profile, report it to site monitors and authorities.

 

The Perpetrator

Is it possible for a teen to carry out an act of catfishing? I asked myself this very question as I scoped the internet for information on teens and young adults creating fake accounts and interacting with others under false pretenses. Though I couldn't find any organized studies done on this topic ( I believe because of the newness of the issue), I did find some sites where teens openly admitted to creating fake accounts. And get this... they admitted to knowing it was wrong, but said they couldn't stop. It was as though these catfishing teens had an obsession with fictitious relationships and were engaging in a romantic type of SIMS game, only they were messing with real people, not SIMS.

Aside from being desperate for a loving relationship, some people create fake personas in an effort to hurt another - which, as mentioned earlier, crosses the line into bullying. Plain and simple, creating fake profiles with the intent to hurt another person is cyberbullying. There have been numerous cases where teens, and sometimes adults who create fake profiles, were later charged with defamation and emotional distress. For all those who think it's fun to mess around with other people's emotions, it's not and if you get caught, the consequences can be severe. For adults, in regard to cyberbullying, it’s important to teach teens the value of treating one another kindly both on and offline.

Parents, if you find out that your teen has become an online imposter, it's important to speak with him/her about the repercussions of his/her actions. If you find that your teen is abusing his/her online privileges then you may have to step in and safeguard him/her through strict parental monitoring. There are Internet browsers that you can use to keep track of the sites your teen is visiting. Here are some instructions on how to check the history on three of the most popular Internet browsers. If your teen uses a different browser, just go to the online support page for that program and search for “Browser History.”

· In Internet Explorer, select the "Favorites" menu and select "History." You will see a listing that can be sorted by date, site name, sites visited most often or most frequently.

· In Safari, select the "History" menu and then select "Show All History." If you want to see further back into the browser’s history, go to the Safari menu and select "Preferences." In the General preferences, look for "Remove History Items" and select a time frame.

· In Firefox, select the "History" menu and then select "Show All History"

Additionally there are software programs available to help you keep track of your teen's online activities. For example, SafetyWeb and SocialShield, will send an alert if language or photos in your teen's online activities signal potential trouble.

For some of these imposter teens, it's easy to confuse real and online worlds. If you find that your teen is engaging in this behavior from either a victim's or a perpetrator's stance, speak with him/her immediately. If it appears to be a more severe problem that can be remedied from home, then please seek professional help. If your teen is acting as an imposter, you can most likely take a look at your teens fictitious accounts for a pattern of personality and physical characteristics or for some clue as to what they are desiring or lacking in their own life.

I truly believe that many of these teens do not intend to be hurtful, deceptive or malicious, but rather are seeking to satisfy their own needs. One of those needs may be the desire to be accepted and loved by another. They seek an escape from their own lives and gravitate to one they've made up. It's a make believe world where anything is possible; only real people are being affected. Professionals can help your teen come back to reality and find love and acceptance in the "real" world.