This whole Manti Te'o hoax and the new MTV show Catfish has put a spotlight on the latest online safety hazard known as "catfishing."
It's hard to summarize the Te'o story, but I'll give it a shot: Te'o, Notre Dame's star linebacker, was a runner-up for the 2012 Heisman trophy and was considered a golden boy on and off the field. He received extra attention and praise this past football season because he was going through hard times in his personal life. His grandmother and his girlfriend reportedly died within hours of each other on Sept. 11, 2012. He played a stellar season despite the tragedies, and he discussed the deaths with the media throughout the season -- particularly the death of his girlfriend, Lennay Kekua, who was supposedly 22 and died of leukemia.
Then things got "fishy." In mid-January, the news broke that Te'o's girlfriend was not actually dead -- because she was not actually real. Te'o claims that he had learned only in Decemeber that he was the victim of a cruel hoax, lured into believing that he was having a real (online and phone-based) relationship with a girl who does not exist. Why he never met the supposed girlfriend face-to-face is unclear. But it turns out he was allegedly "catfished" (duped) by a high school buddy, Ronaiah Tuiasosopo, who posed as the girlfriend online (using a random woman's photos, grabbed off the internet) and even in phone conversations, disguising his voice. Some people have their suspicions and think Te'o was a participant (on some level) in the hoax, and not just a victim. (His grandmother did in fact die in September.)
All I know is, I was clueless and confused about this whole hoax -- until I watched a couple of episodes of the MTV show Catfish, about this very subject. As the shows website explains, "'Catfish' is no longer simply a river dweller, but rather a verb defined as 'to pretend to be someone you're not online by posting false information, such as someone else's pictures, on social media sites usually with the intention of getting someone to fall in love with you.'" The show is on every Monday night at 11, and also on MTV's website. Watch one episode and you'll get it. It's actually really sad (sometimes as much for the 'catfish'/poser as it is for their victim).
I also encourage you to watch the show because, besides understanding the Te'o hoax a little better, it will help you realize some of the new hazards of the big, weird Internet -- your tween/teen's precious world. As a CNN article recently put it: "Who's who on the Internet? Who knows?" As a parent, your biggest online safety concerns probably involve your child's physical safety or protecting them from traditional cyberbullying by classmates. Catfish shows that the latest trend in doing harm online actually involves convincing people (usually older teens/young adults) they have found their true love (... who turns out to be an immature buddy of the same sex, or a lonely person halfway across the country, or a friend of a friend who's really bored). With Valentine's Day coming up, there could be many catfish copycats.
So, in addition to these 5 things you should do before your child joins Facebook/social media and these other online safety tips you should know, keep these 8 "catfish prevention tips" in mind. Anyone can be a victim of a catfish -- Te'o can tell you that!