Psychologists have started to examine why people engage in “sad-fishing” on the internet

New research published in the Journal of American College Health investigated the relationship of sad-fishing to attachment style as well as interpersonal and online support. The findings indicate that those who engage in “sad-fishing” online might be more likely to have an anxious attachment style. However, those who engaged in sad-fishing did not differ from others in their interpersonal and online support.

Social media has become a tool for social connection, especially for adolescents and emerging adults. Social connection can be sought out in ways both positive and negative. The research team defines sad-fishing as “a tendency of social media users to publish exaggerations of their emotional states to generate sympathy.”

Engaging in sad-fishing may leave individuals vulnerable to rejection when seeking help. It also may become a pathological tool used to manipulate those in their social circle. Both outcomes may result in significant challenges for the sad-fisher. Secondarily, when social media consumers become desensitized to suffering due to the assumption that most people are sad-fishing, those who need help may not get it.

Cara Petrofes and her colleagues aimed to discover what psychological elements may motivate some to engage in sad-fishing. Their hypothesis stated that they felt sad-fishers would have a more anxious attachment style and lower interpersonal and/or online support levels.

The research participants were obtained through advertisements on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, as well as around the campus of a large U.S. university. This campaign secured 347 participants. These individuals filled out a qualitative measure of sad-fishing behaviors. Subjects were asked if they felt compelled to exaggerate a personal or health situation online. These responses categorized individuals into groups of “sad-fishers” or “non-sad-fishers.”

Participants in both groups then completed interpersonal support, online social support, and adult attachment style measures. Demographic and social media usage data were also collected, and participants were found to be very similar in both areas.

When the data was analyzed, there were no significant differences between sad-fishers, and non-sad-fishers and their levels of interpersonal or social support. Those labeled as sad-fishers were slightly more likely to have higher scores on their measure of anxious attachment. Anxious attachment refers to how individuals relate to others, in this case, with behaviors that reflect concerns about abandonment or the strength of the relationship. 

In considering the possible explanations for the findings, the research team proposed, “it follows that if an individual reports a more anxious attachment style, they may also be more likely to report a greater tendency to manipulate others in their quest to form a relationship or bond.”

The researchers acknowledged some limitations, including the data did not reveal a statistically significant relationship between sad-fishing and anxious attachment, just a “trend” toward a meaningful correlation. They also recommend that a quantitative measure be developed to reliably identify those who engage in sad-fishing.  

Petrofac and the team conclude by recommending further study into the motivations behind sad-fishing for the purpose of developing better therapeutic interventions.  

The study, “Sad-fishing: Understanding a maladaptive social media behavior in college students“, was authored by Cara Petrofes, Krista Howard, Azucena Mayberry, Catherine Bitney, and Nataie Ceballos.

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