What is catfishing, and how to protect your kids from fake online identities

By: Yolanda Parks

Catfishing is when someone creates a false identity online to get something from someone. Learn how it works, why people do it and how to protect your children from it.

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Text Message | Catfishing

Just 18 to 30 minutes.

That’s all the time it takes for a predator to persuade a child they’ve never met to meet in person, according to a study. And the results can be emotionally and financially devastating. In 2021, Americans lost $6.9 billion in online scams. What’s more surprising is that Gen Z teens account for $101.4 million of that total. 

The term itself has been around as long as the Internet, and it’s a word that’s been a part of our pop culture lexicon for more than a decade, made more widely known by movies and TV shows. Catfishing is far from harmless.

What is catfishing?

Catfishing is when a person creates a false identity online to deceive someone else. The main intent is to gain the trust of another person and lure them into a friendship or relationship or get something from them.

Catfishing can begin as a friend request or a follow request from someone you don’t know, or it can happen in online dating apps, where a person might use someone else’s more intriguing or attractive photo to get attention.

It is a form of online deception that can cause great emotional harm to the person who is “hooked” or misled.

Why do people catfish?

People may catfish simply because they’re bored or because they’re shy teens with low self-esteem who want to feel more connected.

But they may also catfish to commit fraud. For example, a catfisher may first establish trust, then persuade an individual to give them money for what turns out to be a scam, or in extreme cases, sexploitation.

How do kids get catfished?

Being tech-savvy digital natives doesn’t make Gen Z teens and tweens any less susceptible to being catfished. For kids growing up in the digital age, the online world can feel like a safer and more nurturing space to make friends. That makes ongoing conversation about catfishing essential for today’s families.

  • It can start with a simple friend request in social media, or a private message in a group chat or multiplayer video game.

  • In many cases, the catfisher may gush over your child’s profile, gaming tactics or photos posted on social media.

  • They may share personal information about themselves first to create a false sense of safety.

  • Catfishers may push the conversation to text or more direct, one-to-one messaging platforms.

  • They may pretend to buy lavish gifts and ask for a home address or other personal information to send money or presents.

  • Sometimes, there could be an exchange of inappropriate or personal information between your child and the catfisher that could make it embarrassing for your child to ask for help if the exchange goes too far.

Signs of catfishing

How can you tell if you’re being catfished by someone you’ve met online? Here are some of the signs you should look for:

  • There’s little to no information about the person on the social media profile they used to connect. A catfish may have very few friends or followers on their social media accounts.

  • Communication is usually limited to texts or messaging apps. To keep their identity a secret, the other person can often refuse to talk on the phone or video chat.

  • There are few photos and candid shots of the person online, because those who catfish use fake profile pictures.

  • In some cases, to avoid being discovered, a catfisher will decline all opportunities to meet in person. 

  • The individual may begin asking for money and gifts soon after the first message.

How to prevent your kid from being catfished

When it comes to catfishing, a parent’s worst nightmare is that their child will be lured into a relationship with an online predator. But there are safeguards parents can take to protect their child from becoming a victim.

  • Have an honest and age-appropriate conversation with your kids about catfishing. Explain what it is, why people do it and the harm it can cause.

  • In teaching your kids to be good digital citizens, remind them that the internet is not always a safe place and they shouldn’t talk to strangers online. 

  • Encourage your kids to report any catfishing incidents they may have experienced, and reassure them that they’re not at fault. 

  • Create an atmosphere in which a child feels safe talking about anything online that makes them uncomfortable.

  • Monitor your child’s social media accounts and behavior. Make a habit of reviewing the apps and social media sites they use with their friends. Know what photos and videos they are sharing online, and how they are sharing them.

The website Family Education also offers several essential tips on keeping your teen or tween safe online, including:

  • Set privacy controls on social media sites to allow only friends to see your child’s photo or posts.

  • Delete any inactive social media accounts, which can be a source of images or names for catfishers.

  • Use Google Images to search for any online photos of your child and delete those you are uncomfortable with for any reason.

The dangers of being catfished are real. What should you do if you suspect it’s happening to your teen or tween?

  • First, end all communication between the individual and your child.

  • Immediately block the person from your child’s social media accounts.

  • Contact the police and report any incidents of harassment of your child by the catfisher.

  • Take steps to inform yourself and your child about catfishing and online predators, and put measures in place to avoid any future incidents.

Finally, it’s imperative that parents keep the lines of communication open between them and their child. Talk together about the friends they’re making online, why they’re friending them and whether anything in their profile might raise suspicion. Catfishing can be upsetting, but following guidelines and remaining alert can help you prevent it.

In addition to ongoing conversation and connection with your child, you can monitor texts and online behavior with Smart Family.

About the author:

Yolanda Parks is Executive Director, Content Standards and Client Strategy at Magid. She is responsible for developing recommendations on advertising and content standards; online safety; and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion issues.


The author has been compensated by Verizon for this article.

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