Communicating with Teens about Online Dating Scams

John Christensen, PhD on Apr 25, 2016

According to a research study conducted by Pew, online dating continues to rise in popularity. This increase is especially evident among young adults – a group that has seen a surge in usage from 10% to 27% since 2013. As more and more teens go online to find love, it becomes imperative for parents to understand the potential dangers posed by online dating. In this article, you will learn about an online dating hoax called “catfishing” and what you can do as a parent to make sure it never happens to your family.

What is Catfishing?

Urban Dictionary defines a catfish as “someone who pretends to be someone they’re not using Facebook or other social media to create false identities, particularly to pursue deceptive online romances.” Catfishing is a type of “online deception” in which someone fabricates a dating profile or social media account by uploading fake photos and made-up biographical information. Simply put, catfish are trying to be someone they are not. They are pretending to be someone different in an effort to make people like them and want to engage in an online romantic relationship with them.

After setting up their fake profile, catfish usually initiate communication with their victim by “friending” or “following” them on social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. As the relationship progresses over time, they might move to a different communication channel such as text messaging or telephone calls. The typical catfish would most likely not want to meet up in person since this would only serve to blow their cover…but this may change over time as the relationship grows.

Manti Te’o's Story

One of the most popular examples of catfishing occurred in 2012. The victim was a college student named Manti Te’o who played football for Notre Dame. He was lured into a long-distance online relationship by a person who went by the name of Lennay Kekua. According to Te’o, he and his “girlfriend” loved each other very much even though they had not met in person. Right before a big game, Te’o received news that his grandmother died. Within 24 hours, he received news that his girlfriend had died as well. Despite this hardship, Te’o went on to win the football game and received a lot of national media attention because of the situation and all he had been through. It later became apparent that Te’o had been catfished – his girlfriend never really existed. If you’re interested in hearing more about this heartbreaking saga, check out this video clip of Gary Tuchman from CNN reporting on the story.

Reasons for Catfishing

But what would cause someone to deceive another person in this way? Although scientific research addressing this phenomenon is still lacking, academics studying online behavior have suggested several possible motivations:

  1. Money – Someone might catfish because they are trying to scam their victim out of money. As the online relationship progresses and the two people become closely connected, the catfish might begin talking about his or her personal financial problems. If the sob story is good enough, the victim might feel sorry for the catfish and send cash, jewelry, or other gifts to help them out.

  2. Cyberbullying – Someone might catfish because they want to trick their victim, embarrass them, or “get back” at them for some reason. The catfish may try to get their victim to divulge secrets or share sexual photos that can later be used to embarrass the victim online or at school. (This motivation becomes more and more popular and national stop cyberbullying campaigns aim to put an end on it.)

  3. Loneliness – Someone might catfish because they are craving a deep interpersonal connection that they are having trouble finding in the real world. They may find it difficult to initiate and maintain romantic relationships face-to-face. For many people, it’s much easier (and quicker) to find love online. On the Internet, you can be anyone you want – more attractive, more successful. All you need is a fake photo and an imaginative backstory that people are drawn to.

How to Prevent Catfishing

So what can you do to prevent this from happening to one of your children? First, you have to realize that communication is key. Take the time to seek information about online safety and then sit down with your children and have a frank discussion. It’s understandable If you are having a tough time figuring out a way to initiate the conversation without coming across as overprotective. One way to start the conversation is by asking them if they’ve ever heard of Manti Te’o and his ordeal. Or you could ask them if they’ve ever seen the catfishing documentary or television show.

Once you’ve got their attention, express your concern and make them realize that this is a real threat. Many psychologists believe that the best way to do this is by increasing their perceptions of severity and susceptibility. This would involve making them believe the consequences of catfishing are significant enough to try to avoid and that it is possible for someone like them to become the victim of a catfishing hoax. Convincing them of this may take some work. Be sure to craft your message in a way that enhances self-efficacy and makes them feel like an independent young adult. Avoid language that makes them feel like an immature child who still needs the protection of mommy and daddy...this will only lead to reactance. Spend some time coming to a mutual agreement about household rules and expected behavioral standards -- both online and in the real world. Be sure to end the conversation with a big bear hug.

If you’re looking for more information on Internet privacy and safety, check out Common Sense Media and WebMD.

Your children are already online. Don’t be too late to supervise their online activity and kick-start necessary conversations – sign up for Familoop Safeguard trial to supervise your children online effectively and succeed in parenting.

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