TEEN
03/02/2013 02:46 pm ET

'Catfished': Teen Reporters Investigate Online Relationships

By Julianne Micoleta, Ellie Papadakis and Elk Grove

Julianne Micoleta and Ellie Papadakis are seniors at Elk Grove High School. They are student reporters for The Mash, a weekly teen publication distributed to Chicago-area high schools.

When she was in seventh grade, Chicago-area senior B.D., who asked that The Mash identify her by her initials, started talking to people through Xbox LIVE, an online multiplayer gaming and digital media service. She stayed up late, chatting and playing video games with people she’d never met in person.

“Eventually, I got comfortable and felt like everyone I talked to was my friend.” she said. “I started giving out my phone number.”

B.D. isn’t alone. She’s one of many teens who use their online networks to meet new friends and seek out romantic relationships.

Recently, though, there has been a surge of media attention surrounding the online dating scene. “Catfish” isn’t just a show on MTV; it’s a term used to describe the act of deceiving someone. More specifically, a catfish is someone who creates a fake online identity to meet others through social networks such as Facebook or Twitter.

Despite increased awareness about the dangers of Internet romances, many teens remain unfazed. Eventually, many teens like B.D. start using dating sites like Meetme, Skout and Tagged to socialize with new people.

“When I (started) talking to people, I would look at their pictures and see if they have more than just one picture … and it depends how they talk to me,” she said. “I look out for people who sound not real or just want pictures (of me).”

If they pass the test and she finds they have similar interests, the conversation progresses.

“We basically would play the question game and see if we have things in common,” she said.

CATFISH PSYCHOLOGY

Dr. Jennie Noll, the director of research for behavioral medicine and clinical psychology at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, conducted the first objective study of Internet behavior in teenagers. The study, which appears in the February issue of the journal Pediatics, found that 30 percent of teenage girls met up with a stranger in person after initially meeting them online.

Teens who were more likely to meet someone offline had more provocative social networking pages, the study showed.

“By provocative I mean we coded for things like racy photos of themselves, some kind of identifying information like name or school or phone numbers, sexual chatting, sexual utterances like, ‘I’m sexy’ or ‘I’m easy’ or ‘will go all the way,’ ” Noll said. “They are by far significantly more likely to be the ones who a year later told us they had met someone offline whose identity has not been fully confirmed.”

However, Noll does note that not every in-person meeting leads to someone becoming a victim.

“People meet people offline all the time. There’s online dating, Craigslist and all kinds of things that people do,” she said. “But if you think about it, when you are an adolescent girl and you agree to (meet someone offline), most people would agree that that’s a dangerous thing to do.”

FRIEND OR FAKER?

Despite advances in social media privacy settings, many teenagers still allow strangers to become privy to their personal information online. In Noll’s study, some teens had more than 900 people in their social networks.

“Nobody is friends with that many people,” Noll said. “They say yes to anybody who wants to be in their network, and that creates an opportunity for dangerous or exploitative individuals to find vulnerable teens and create some kind of sexual relationship.”

When explaining why some people would prey on innocent people online, Noll said their motives are surprisingly similar to those of their victims.

“A lot of kids—and my research actually shows this—who have had some really difficult pasts are the ones who would do this (catfish) more,” Noll said. “When I did this study, I had kids that were abused and neglected in my sample, and they were the ones who were more likely to do this. They may not have parents around who are noticing what they do, and they may not have the kind of relationship with them where they could talk about the consequences.”

Past history and parental involvement also are key to understanding how someone could be a victim of catfishing, but there’s another explanation.

“There’s just some kids who don’t care,” Noll said. “They’re just going to do it, and they’re just going to test the waters and until something bad happens, they’re just going to do what they’re going to do and nobody’s going to stop them.”

On the other hand, there are teens like Warren Township senior Renamai Balisi who are not comfortable with any form of online communication between strangers.

“I think that you definitely have to be cautious when you’re online and talking to strangers because I believe that anybody can pretend to be someone that they’re not,” Balisi said. “Personally, I would never be in an online relationship because I’d be afraid they are catfishing me, and with those types of things, you can never really be sure.”

A GOOD CATCH?

Still, not all online relationships are as tumultuous as an episode of MTV’s “Catfish,” which helps online daters meet their love interests—whether they turn out to be real or fake. Take Hancock junior Moises Perez, for example. He met his current girlfriend, Glendale, Ariz., high school junior Nancy Caffrey, through a mutual friend.

When his friend moved to Arizona, he suggested that Perez and Caffrey talk because they seemed to have a lot in common. The two haven’t met in person, but they continue to talk over the phone and through text messages.

“It didn’t feel awkward primarily because I didn’t begin speaking to her expecting to ultimately be in a relationship with her,” Perez said. “She came off as very friendly, so I did feel comfortable speaking to her. We began by first talking about what we were like, and what interests and hobbies we had.”

Although they’ve never met face-to-face, both Perez and Caffrey are certain they’re not being catfished by each other.

“I did not worry about being duped (by) a false identity. Looking deep into the facts is what matters,” Caffrey said. “Moises was good friends with our friend; our friend has met him and went to school with him when (the friend) still lived in Chicago. I know two of his close friends and I fully trust them. … I have full trust in all of them, including Moises.”

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