Until relatively recently, if you searched for “catfish”, there would have been only one definition relating to the bottom-feeding aquatic creature. However, the word took on a whole new meaning with Nev Schulman’s 2010 documentary, Catfishwhich detailed how he was drawn into an online relationship with someone he thought was a 19-year-old named Megan. In reality, she was a 40-year-old married woman named Angela, who went to great lengths to create a fake character.
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As Catfishthe documentary, entered into the conversation, Catfish (and cat fishing), the term, has entered the lexicon. Thus, Merriam-Webster added new definitions: a name, meaning “a person who creates a false personal profile on a social networking site for fraudulent or deceptive purposes”; and a transitive verb, meaning “to trick (someone) into creating a fake personal profile online”. This explains What catfishing is, but not why people do it.
But here’s the thing: people have been fishing for a long time before the rise of social media, and before there was an end to the act. Social media has simply made the practice easier for the abuser. And that often made it a much more publicly painful, and shameful, one for the victim. In the past, one could be led by letters and phone calls, but today an attacker can create an entire fake persona.
As we will see, victims of catfishing can feel very real emotions for this fake character. Therefore, the fallout from a catfishing program can be a real pain. And there’s really never anything good to come out of it, other than a cautionary tale for others.
Why do people fish?
There are myriad reasons why someone might engage in catfishing, and none of them are good. However, their degree of severity varies. Let’s look at five of the most common reasons people fish.
Boredom or loneliness: It seems commonplace to say that someone is catfishing because they are bored. It’s sad, but not excusable, to think they do it because they’re lonely, but these are indeed common reasons people assume fake personas online engage with others. Simply put, it’s something to do and something that allows human contact, even if it’s under false pretenses.
The term “catfish” was actually coined in the 2010 documentary by Angela’s husband Vince, who compared her actions to those of real catfish shipped in tanks with cod to keep the latter active. (Turns out that’s a myth.) But by Vince’s reasoning, Angela’s catfishing activities keep the lives of those around her interesting.
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Sexual arousal or exploration: Quite often people who are catfishing pretend to be someone of a different gender or sexual orientation. They may use their fake personality to explore an aspect of their sexuality or gender identity that they find intriguing, confusing, or exciting.
Fraud: An all too common reason people catfish is because they hope to get money or other assets from the person they are cheating on. Whether by directly accessing their victim’s bank account or receiving gifts, a catfisher often seeks material gain.
Revenge or Exploitation: Some people use catfishing to get revenge on someone they think has wronged them. Others use the practice to cause their own harm, whether emotional or financial. The catfishing victim may be embarrassed, ashamed, ridiculed, or depressed, which may bring joy to the perpetrator.
Escape: Many catfishing authors do this as a form of mental and emotional escape. They enter a delusional mental state in which they believe the lies they tell and the fictional world they have created. That’s not a healthy reason for their actions, of course. They always harm the other party and do nothing about the circumstances from which they wish to escape.
How talking about being catfished helped Manti Te’o heal
In case you missed it, a two-part documentary from Netflix centers on the catfishing scam that nearly ruined the life of NFL player Manti Te’o when he was a rising star at the University of Notre Dame.
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The documentary, Untold: The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist, does a wonderful job telling the story of Te’o, so we won’t go into too much detail. Suffice it to say, he was the victim of an elaborate catfishing scheme in which the person Te’o considered his long-distance girlfriend went so far as to stage his death. Te’o dedicated a football season to his memory, attracting national media attention. His death became the defining experience of his life. it’s not his time playing professional football, it’s the time he spent in a fake relationship and the emotional consequences.
After participating in The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist, Te’o said he forgave the person who cheated on him and moved on with his life. If you should ever get caught in the trap, I hope you can do the same. Here are some tips to that end.
What to do if you are catfishing
So it happened. The person you thought was the love of your life turned out to be fishing for you. And now?
The first thing to do is to break contact. Block the person on social media platforms, report them to moderators or administrators, remove their phone number and block their email address. In short, shut them down. You’ll also want to go through your social media accounts and delete any mentions of the person. Delete any photos they have sent; it’s not really them anyway.
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If the person has access to anything from your Netflix account to your bank account, change your passwords. Consider putting a fraud alert on your credit cards. If you’re concerned that a bigger problem is looming, such as theft or threats of violence, consider filing a police report. Just make sure you have a reason before you do it. A brief conversation with a lawyer can help you make a decision.
Finally, take care of yourself. There can be a heavy emotional toll inflicted by catfishing. So don’t hesitate to talk to a therapist, a religious leader, or friends or family with whom you are comfortable. Find someone real who can support you through the anger and, yes, the grief, of a catfishing situation.