When we go into schools to talk to children, one of our main priorities is to help them navigate the world of online safety without ‘turning them off’. Primary-aged children are always very excited to discuss the games and websites that they like to use, so we can quickly build up a picture of what apps they love, the kinds of things they like to do and who they are talking to.
In our presentations, quite early on, we introduce the idea of catfishing, and explore what it is. If this word is unfamiliar to you, you’re not alone - I’ve noticed that often teachers look surprised by the word, especially when the children already know about it! It seems to be a word that young people are more aware of than adults, presumably because it’s something that they encounter more in their worlds.
Catfishing is essentially creating a fake profile or persona in order to trick someone online, and it’s rife – adults as well as children are regularly taken in by catfishers. After all, it’s simply someone playing a trick, as is grooming, and there’s no age limit to being tricked. Some catfishers do it for laughs and some are in it for more sinister reasons, as in Breck’s case. There have been several high-profile catfishing cases where the catfisher tries to blackmail or extort the celebrity after tricking them into doing something.
When we talk to primary-age children, we show them the picture above and ask them who they would trust or talk to if they were sent a message by one of the people. That leads on to talk of whether we ‘know’ anything about a person simply from looking at a picture of them (which we don’t of course, but it’s very easy to make assumptions, such as that number one is a granny, which they all do, and that number seven is a mum).
Then, when we’ve discussed how we don’t know anything about that person’s character from their picture, we move on to how we don’t even know that they are the ones that posted it. This is a really key point for younger children, who tend to be very trusting and take things they see on the internet at face value. Catfishers rely on people being less cautious online than they would in real life, which is why we teach the crucial difference between ‘real’ friends and ‘online’ strangers. We teach that people you have only met online are not friends, they are still strangers, no matter how often you talk to them.
Not all groomers use catfishing, but many do. In Breck’s case Lewis did not give a false name, but everything he told Breck was a cynically manufactured lie. The act of catfishing was how he managed to eventually lure Breck to his house.