Relax – it’s only a catfish!

It's only a it?Do you know what catfishing is? I must admit that I didn’t until I saw someone reading an article on the Tube the other day about someone being “…catfished aged 14” (NB: not one to open in front of a class). My shameful ignorance of the term extended to not knowing that there is an MTV show of the same name and that it is such common parlance that there were efforts to bring in an anti-catfish law in parliament.

But once I had worked out what it meant – namely, to use someone else’s photo to trick your way into a sexual relationship – it got me thinking about the dangers of careless language for safeguarding young people. In the article that triggered all this, catfishing was actually a reference to attempted child sexual abuse via grooming and CSE.

Give it a cuddly name though (I know, you wouldn’t cuddle a catfish), and all of a sudden it is normalised and is easy to shrug off as harmless fun. To be fair to the newspaper, it was a direct quote, and let me be clear that I intend no criticism at all of the victim, as the word has become a cultural reference (just one that I didn’t know).

Although I am probably inviting accusations of “political correctness gone mad”, isn’t this a good example of why language matters? Last week’s post on SafeBlog was about roasting, which is essentially bullying by another name; the Rotherham sexual abuse scandal was in part allowed to perpetuate because the girls involved were ‘engaging in risk-taking behaviours’ rather than described as vulnerable, at-risk children. And only this week there was news of a (admittedly disgraced and imprisoned) US congressman sexting a child, which, although it sounds bad in itself, is not so clear-cut as soliciting child sexual abuse imagery.

Sexism and racism campaigners have long campaigned against terms and expressions that only serve to consolidate prejudice. If you aren’t convinced, ask yourself when a politician would talk about a tax burden, and when would they say contribution instead? They would choose very carefully, and with good reason – words shape the way we think about a subject…a lot. The linguistic term for this is framing, and there are plenty of fascinating books and research on the subject should you want to get academic.

Either way, I don’t think it is an overstatement to say that what we say and the words we use shape what we think, and can therefore play an important role in keeping children safe.


PS – For handy signposts to information about child sexual exploitation, see

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To roast or not to roast?

Roasting“Roast me!” is a phrase I would normally only use when pretending to be a potato, which doesn’t happen all that often.

Those of you over a certain age probably feel the same (aspirations to vegetable imitation notwithstanding). But for young people, its alternative meaning can have severe consequences.

It’s not at all new (this article was posted over a year ago and it had been around for a couple of years before that), but it seems to be coming round again.

What is it? Put simply, posting a photo or video of yourself alongside the hashtag #roastme and thereby inviting friends and strangers alike to tease you for it. Harmless banter…after all, they literally asked for it? Or something more nefarious?

We mustn’t forget the following: one person’s teasing is another’s bullying, and the same words can always have a different impact on us depending on who said them; these things can quickly spiral out of control; sometimes people haven’t actually posted the photo in question but ‘volunteer’ others; and asking to be roasted is clearly harmful and self-destructive in some cases (psychologists have likened it to self-harm where the user really is seeking abuse).

So what to do? Whether you use this half-baked term (pun very much intended) to talk about the issues or just think about all the instant social media putdowns we are all partial to now and again for a laugh at others’ expense, the issues are the same.

We could do worse than encourage young people (and adults) to do two simple things: stop and think before you click, and then ask the perennial self-reflective question “how would it make me feel?”


That’s enough from me, so why not head over to now for signposts to a wide range of resources and organisations that help schools and families with bullying issues.