Keep Your Child Safe from Catfishing. 7 Essential Tips for Parents

What is catfishing?

Catfishing refers to when someone creates a fake online identity, typically using someone else’s photos and information, in order to deceive people (according to CyberSmile). Catfishers make up elaborate profiles and life stories to form relationships under false pretenses. They often target people on social media or dating sites.

The motivations behind catfishing vary. Some catfishers do it for romance and attention. Others catfish people as a harmful prank or to extort money. According to the Wikipedia page on catfishing, some signs that a profile may be fake include:

  • Refusal to video chat
  • Making excuses to avoid meeting in person
  • Using photos that seem too professional

No matter the motive, catfishing violates people’s privacy and trust. It can lead to emotional distress or financial fraud. As Fortinet describes, catfishing schemes often rely on manipulating the victim’s emotions in order to exploit them.

Why catfishing is harmful

Catfishing can cause significant emotional and psychological damage to victims. The act of manipulating someone’s emotions and forming a relationship under false pretenses is a deep betrayal of trust that can leave the catfished individual feeling shocked, confused, and emotionally devastated. Victims may feel an acute sense of humiliation and anger when discovering the deception.1

In some cases, catfishers use the fabricated relationship to defraud their victims financially, or even blackmail them with threats to expose private information or photos shared during the relationship. Catfishing has also led to dangerous situations when victims agree to meet the catfisher in person, thinking they are connecting with someone they know and trust online. This highlights the risks associated with meeting strangers first contacted online.2

The harm caused by catfishing — emotional distress, betrayal, and in some cases, financial loss — cannot be underestimated. Victims may suffer from anxiety, depression, and have lasting trust issues that impact future relationships. Providing education and emotional support can help victims process and recover from the trauma of being deceived online.

Common targets of catfishers

Teens and young adults are more likely to be targeted by catfishers than other age groups. The anonymity of online platforms makes it easier for predators to disguise themselves as someone else in order to gain trust and manipulate vulnerable youth (Source: CNN). Developing social skills and searching for online relationships also puts teens at greater risk of falling for catfishing scams.

In general, people seeking online relationships tend to be more vulnerable to catfishing. The excitement of a new online romance can override critical thinking and make even adults let their guard down. According to one source, personality traits like loneliness, impulsiveness, and risk-taking behaviors correlate with a higher likelihood of being catfished (Source: MindBodyGreen).

There are some warning signs that suggest someone online may be a catfish. These include refusing to video chat, making excuses for why they can’t meet in person, posting photos that seem inconsistent, and asking for money. Being attentive to any suspicious behaviors like these can help avoid manipulation.

Have open conversations about online safety

One of the best ways to protect your child from catfishing is to have open conversations about online safety. Discuss the risks of developing online relationships and emphasize the importance of verifying someone’s identity online. Let your child know that not everyone online is who they claim to be. Remind them that it’s easy for someone to pretend to be someone else over social media or texting.

Make your child feel comfortable coming to you if they encounter suspicious online activity or have doubts about an online friend’s identity. Reassure them that you are there to help them navigate their online lives safely, not to judge them. Keeping communication open and maintaining trust is key.

Explain to them that verifying identity is crucial before getting close to someone met online. Methods like video chatting and meeting in person can help confirm that a friend is who they say they are. Teach your child to be wary of excuses or resistance to verification.

Having ongoing conversations will prepare your child to identify and avoid catfishing. They will feel empowered to verify identities and more likely to seek your guidance around new online friends.

Encourage connection with real-life friends

Online-only friendships can come with higher risks of catfishing. Encouraging your child to foster local, real-life friendships and interests can help provide them with a social support network and less reliance on solely online interactions. According to research from Harvard, real-world social connections are a key factor in learning and development (

Pay attention if your child suddenly becomes withdrawn from their normal social circles in favor of spending more time online with unknown people. Make an effort to get them involved in activities, sports, and hobbies that connect them to peers in real life. Having strong personal relationships and interests outside of the online world can give them a healthy balance and more social fulfillment.

While online friends can absolutely be real, vetting friends made online should involve verifying their identity and gradually getting to know them through in-person meetups, video chats, and involving them with real-life friend groups. Encourage your child to be wary of anyone who seems reluctant to verify who they say they are.

Establish rules for online accounts

One of the most important things parents can do is establish clear rules around their child’s online accounts and social media usage. Many experts recommend requiring parental approval before a child opens any new online account (KidsHealth, 2022). This gives parents the opportunity to talk through potential risks, privacy settings, and information sharing.

Parents should also have access to monitor their child’s accounts and online activity (Child Mind Institute, 2022). This doesn’t mean snooping or spying, but rather maintaining open lines of communication and setting boundaries. Tell your child you may periodically check their accounts and messages.

Finally, set guidelines around what types of information and pictures your child should and should not post online (Overstuffed Life, 2017). Personal details like address, phone number, and birthdate should remain private. Talk about the risks of sharing provocative photos or details about their schedules and activities.

Use privacy settings and filters

Social media platforms provide various privacy settings and content filters that can help protect children online. Parents should enable the strongest available privacy settings on their child’s accounts. This may include options like making the account private, restricting messages to only approved friends, or limiting commenting abilities.

It’s also important to block messages from strangers in order to prevent contact from unknown adults. On platforms like Instagram, TikTok, and Snapchat, messaging can be restricted to only allow messages from approved followers or friends.

Content filters can also be enabled to help limit potentially inappropriate or mature content. Filters may allow blocking certain words, phrases, hashtags or accounts that promote harmful content. For example, parents can turn on YouTube’s “Restricted Mode” to help filter out mature videos.

While privacy settings and filters are not foolproof, enabling these tools provides an added layer of protection for kids online. Parents should routinely check that the settings remain enabled as social media platforms frequently update their features. For more, see this guide on social media privacy settings:

Monitor your child’s online activity

It’s important to oversee your child’s online profiles, posts, messages, and other activity. Be aware of who they are connecting with online and look out for signs of grooming attempts from older strangers trying to build an inappropriate relationship. Watch for any secretive behavior around phone/computer use.

There are various parental control apps and programs like SurveilStar Any Parental Control that allow you to monitor your child’s activity across devices and accounts. These can record messages, track web history, and send alerts about concerning interactions.

While children may protest, explain these measures are for their own protection until they are mature enough to use technology responsibly. Have them use computers and phones in open family areas for more supervision. Check in with them about what they do online and remind them to tell you if they ever feel uncomfortable.

Teach critical thinking about online info

With the internet full of misinformation and potential manipulation, it’s crucial to teach children critical thinking skills to evaluate online content and sources. As the Internet Matters lesson plan outlines, we need to help kids verify claims, analyze motives behind communication, and identify potential grooming or manipulation tactics.

According to research from Educause, online discussions provide an opportunity to practice critical thinking by giving and receiving feedback and reflecting more deeply on content [1]. Schools should incorporate these types of activities to help students evaluate online information and build their critical faculties.

With critical thinking, students don’t just memorize information. As LearnSafe explains, they evaluate information, learn it, and apply it to future situations [2]. This empowers kids to be more savvy and self-reliant as they navigate the online world.

Keep communication open

Maintain an open, non-judgmental environment. Check in regularly about online activities and friends. Stay alert for red flags. Keeping communication open with your child is one of the most important ways to protect them from catfishing according to experts. Having regular conversations shows your child that they can come to you about anything without fear of judgement (Nemours). This allows you to better monitor their online activity for any concerning behaviors or signs of catfishing. Make discussing online safety part of your daily routine, just as you would talk about their school day. An open dialogue helps children feel comfortable coming to you if they encounter catfishers or other dangers online (NSPCC). Red flags to watch for include your child becoming secretive about online activities, mood changes, spending increasing time online, and withdrawing from real world friends.

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