New DAUK/HMC report identifies latest online trends


School children are becoming more tech-savvy, and are more likely to manage their own use of technology with responsibility and common sense.

But troubled teenagers are increasingly seeking comfort online, from strangers as well as friends. Whilst some find solace, others report feeling worse after being accused by fellow users of ‘sadfishing’ and attention seeking.

These are two of the tech trends identified by new in-depth research on the digital wellbeing of 11 to 16-year-olds among state and independent school children by the award-winning Digital Awareness UK (DAUK), which helps young people use technology more responsibly.

The new report, commissioned by the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference (HMC) as part of its Tech Control campaign, was based on face to face sessions with more than 50,000 pupils across various types of schools.

Findings (see additional notes below for more detail and quotes):

> “Sadfishing” is being reported by young people as a growing behavioural trend which they are finding hard to manage. This is a social media phenomenon that emerged after celebrities, such as the American media personality Kendall Jenner, were accused of posting exaggerated claims about their emotional problems to generate sympathy and draw people onto their sites.

DAUK found that young people with genuine mental health issues who legitimately seek support online are nevertheless facing unfair and distressing criticism that they are jumping onto the same publicity bandwagon.

In some cases, this rejection can damage their already fragile self-esteem and even result in them becoming more vulnerable to sexual ‘grooming’ online.

> A growing amount of alarming online behaviour remains hidden from public view as victims are increasingly reluctant to confide in adults.

> The number of platforms on which people can anonymously bully or threaten others with virtually no chance of being identified is on the rise.

> Teens are also losing faith in the repeated but often unfulfilled pledges by technology companies to make the internet a significantly safer place.

Chris Jeffery, Chair of the HMC Wellbeing Working Group and Headmaster of Bootham School, said: “Mobile technology and social media are now an inescapable aspect of the landscape of the lives of the young people that we care for in our schools.

“Given the nature of that technology, trends are fast-moving and it is crucial that educators and parents have regular insights into how young people are using their devices. We are very grateful to DAUK for this report and for all it highlights for us.

“It is encouraging to read of the growing signs of increased control that many young people are taking over their use of technology, but it is also helpful to know new ways in which It is proving to be a burden for them as well.

“I hope that the work that DAUK have done in conjunction with HMC will be of use to staff and parents in all schools across the country.”

Charlotte Robertson, Co-Founder of DAUK, said: "Over the last year we've seen the digital landscape evolve at such rapid pace - particularly when it comes to the prevalence of data misuse, access to anonymous platforms and increased sharing of upsetting content.

“This has left many parents feeling overwhelmed by how best to empower their children to navigate the online world safely. However, this report also highlights just how much progress is also being made, with tech-savvy young people often taking the lead when it comes to making sure technology has a positive and not a disruptive influence on their day-to-day lives.

"The key takeaway for parents is that it's more important now than it ever has been to be interested and involved in your children's digital lives. Ensure that, where possible, you are part of the solution to any problems or opportunities they may come across online and remember that whilst they will always play a crucial role, parental controls can only do so much and are not infallible. Keep communication lines open and work with your child's school to ensure any education they receive in the classroom is backed up at home."

An accompanying video can be viewed here:


Editor’s notes

This report is part of the Tech Control campaign being run by HMC and DAUK, designed to help young people take control of their own use of technology. The Tech Control 2018 video and lesson plans are available on the HMC website, here. Tech Control 2017: Digital Awareness UK:

HMC is a professional association of heads of the world's leading independent schools. HMC has 297 members in the British Isles educating more than 200,000 children, and a further 55 international members and 10 associates. Our members lead schools that are distinguished by their excellence in pastoral care, co-curricular provision and classroom teaching. Members of HMC have met annually in conference since the first meeting in 1869. Now celebrating its 150th anniversary, HMC is a thriving, pro-active association of leading figures in school education. See

Digital Awareness UK is an award-winning digital wellbeing agency.


On “sadfishing”, the report says: “DAUK is concerned about the number of students who are bullied for sadfishing (through comments on social media, on messaging apps or face-to-face), thus exacerbating what could be a serious mental health problem. We have noticed that students are often left feeling disappointed by not getting the support they need online.

“Groomers can also use comments that express a need for emotional support as a platform to connect with young people and gain their trust, only to try and exploit it at a later point.

“We were delivering a workshop with a year nine girl this year who revealed that she started a romantic relationship with someone who she had connected with on social media through a mutual friend after discussing her depression online. He responded to her post and built up a connection with her by sharing his similar personal experiences. They had never met face-to-face but fortunately she ended the relationship when she discovered he was much older than he claimed he was and was pressurising her to send him explicit images of herself.”

Quote from Year 7 student on issue of “sadfishing”: “I was feeling really down the other day as I was going through some problems at home. I was on my own so I thought I’d talk about it on Instagram, just letting people know how I was feeling. I got a lot of people commenting on and ‘liking’ my post but then some people said I was sadfishing the next day at school for attention. Sharing my feelings online has made me feel worse in some ways but supported in others.”

On teenagers becoming better at managing their own digital behaviour, the report says: “A greater understanding of economic systems such as the ‘attention economy’ (which are employed by technology and media companies to capture our attention and keep us using their products) has increased students’ grasp of how often unethical techniques such as ‘clickbait’ and ‘fake news’ or features such as ‘up-next videos’ and ‘push-notifications’ are purposely developed to keep us engaged.”

On worrying behaviour going underground, the report includes this quote from a year 11 student: “A couple of years ago a boy in year 9 got suspended from school for sharing nudes of another girl and loads of other students in the school got in trouble as well for sharing the pic. Since then no one has told teachers about the sexting that goes on but it still happens a lot. They wouldn’t be able to help anyway.”

On rule-breaking. the report includes this quote from a sixth-form student: “I actually think it’s more harmful than helpful to put all these rules in place like age recommendations and all the stuff outlined in terms and conditions – which nobody ever reads. Even the law on sexting and online bullying is unrealistic – it happens all day every day and no one seems to get in trouble for it. No one is protecting us and we can pretty much do what we want once we figure out how to get around the restrictions anyway!”

On the issue of anonymous platforms, the report says: “Platforms that give us the ability both to be anonymous and to seek anonymity, are increasingly the chosen method for inviting peers to share their opinions, but this can make it easy to post abusive content without fear of consequence. Increased awareness of the repercussions an unfavourable digital footprint in some cases can mean students turn to anonymous platforms to share harmful content….

“Students regularly say to us that they are using anonymous apps to post questions and messages for people to respond to, and the responses they get can be anything from a hurtful comment about their appearance to a suggestion that they should self-harm.

“At a time when young people are forming and shaping their identities, it’s understandable why they would choose to use social media as a platform for gauging opinions from others. However, in doing so, they are of course opening themselves up to abusive comments. In addition, positive feedback can result in increased self-esteem while negative feedback can reduce it.”