April 01, 2016 —

Peer pressure is nothing new; however today our teens are not only judged in the hallways at school. The pressures and subsequent feelings can now be magnified a thousand times over through computer and cell phone screens.

What hasn't changed is that everyone still wants to be liked. In our society, sadly, being liked – especially among teens – has become somewhat synonymous with how many hearts, clicks or thumbs ups one can collect online. It’s a popularity race that can quickly turn to the dark side.

Today, teens can become victims of humiliation while quietly sitting in the privacy of their own bedrooms. Peer cruelty is especially devastating when it goes viral for everyone to see, and has even been linked to teenage depression

It can be even worse when you discover that your teen has been duped online, also known as catfishing.

The MTV series Catfish, a 2010 documentary-turned-TV-show, highlights people who conceal their real identities or post false information online while interacting with hopeful love interests. 

Was their intention to hurt others? Most denied it, but that was often the result.

As we work to protect our youth, we have to take this form of cyberbullying very seriously. Teens are already struggling with the pressure of keeping up with academics, friends and fashion trends as well as family, financial and romantic issues -- being caught in a catfish net could be emotionally shattering.

Many people remember the shocking case of Megan Meier, when her neighbors, grown adults who were the parents Megan’s of former friend, disguised themselves as a teen boy online. This story had a tragic ending that hopefully many people are still learning from.

One new young adult novel, Identity Crisis by Melissa Schorr, delves into this topic with distinct characters that teenagers can identify with. It provides a better understanding as to why some people act like this, both online and offline. This is a perfect book for both parents and teens to read and discuss. Your offline parenting is what helps your teen make better online decisions. 

It’s important to caution your teen about forming online friendships with people they don’t also know in “real” life. However, in today’s highly connected online word, your teen will most likely not know every one of their online friends in an offline capacity. With that said, here are five questions I encourage you to ask your teen about their online friendships with people they don’t also know offline:

  1. Are you ever able to FaceTime or Skype with them?
  2. Do they live close by, but always have an excuse for why they can’t ever meet in person?
  3. How many other online friends do they have, especially mutual friends? (Not that quantity is important, but if they are creating new accounts, it difficult to gather new friends).
  4. Are they tagged in many pictures?
  5. Does the time zone they say they are in match up with the times they are posting online?

More than anything, it’s critical that you create and maintain an open line of communication with your teen. Discuss examples of catfishing and how it relates to online safety. Ask your teen how these stories make them feel. Explain that you want to make sure that they are aware of this form of cyberbullying, so they are less likely to fall victim to it.

Has your teen ever come into contact with anyone being fake online? Have you talked about this danger with parents in your community? Please share your stories in the comments below. Learning from each other is priceless. 

Sue Scheff is an author and parent advocate. She is the founder of Parents, which has helped thousands of families since 2001 with at-risk teenagers. Her first book, Wit's End! Advice and Resources for Saving Your Out-of-Control Teen continues to be resource for many parents raising teens today. Follow Sue on Twitter and join her on Facebook.