Here's the truth about that viral catfishing stunt that three teens fell for

21-year-old YouTuber Coby Persin has gone viral this week thanks to a new video that shows three teen girls falling for a catfishing stunt. But the video might be hyping up a threat that isn’t actually that widespread.

The term “catfishing” refers to pretending to be someone else online. It comes from a movie of the same name (which spawned a TV show), documenting one man’s discovery that his online girlfriend wasn’t who she seemed to be. 

Inspired by a recent news story of a father who saw his 12-year-old daughter being abducted by a 27-year-old man she met online, Persin created his own experiment where he set out to convince teenage girls to meet up with a total stranger they only knew through Facebook.

In four days, the video has been viewed over 25 million times.

Persin told The Daily Dot’s The Kernel that he found willing participants on Craigslist who were parents of girls ranging from the ages of 12 to 14. Each parent was compensated for their participation, but Persin would not tell The Kernel how much they were paid.

Over the course of three to four days, Persin would friend each girl on Facebook and message her on the website as well as through text messages. He had created a different identity for the purpose of the experiment, pretending to be 15-year-old boy who had just moved to their town and was trying to make new friends.

Persin's fake identityYouTubePersin’s fake identity.

All three girls in the video responded positively. He began to ask them to meet in person, and though the girls said they had to wait until their parents were out or asleep, they eventually agreed — but when they arrived at the agreed upon location, Persin was accompanied by their parents and a crew of cameras.

None of the parents actually thought their child would go through with the experiment, so when they saw their daughters approach Persin, their reactions were emotional.

Persin youtube videoYouTubePersin watches as one of the fathers grabs his daughter and asks her what she was thinking.

“You could’ve been raped and murdered,” one father yelled as he grabbed his 12-year-old daughter. “I’ve already lost your mother, what would I do if I lost you?”

“You understand now, you should never ever, ever do that again, this should teach you a lesson forever, for your whole life,” Persin told the last 14-year-old girl. All three girls were too upset to respond to their parents or Persin with anything other than “I’m sorry” or silence.

Many of the commenters on YouTube think Persin was doing a public service by alerting parents to these types of online dangers.

PersinYouTubeIn one exchange, Persin waited in a van with the 14-year-old teen’s parents. They were shocked to see their daughter got in the van with a stranger.

“That’s pretty scary,” said one commenter. “Parents need to stop treating a child’s cell phone and social media like it should be the child’s own private space. Hopefully both kids and parents learned a valuable lesson here.”

And while the video ends with a frightening statistic — “there are over 750,000 registered child predators in the United States” — the video provides no other context, such as explaining that the number of registered sex offenders includes people convicted of nonviolent crimes like public urination, solicitation, and streaking, which some people viewed as a scare tactic.

“What is the message?” Lenore Skenazy, author of “Free Range Kids,” wrote on her website. “That young people shouldn’t trust anyone online? That’s like telling them not to trust anyone they meet in the off line world, too. […] What is so hard to understand is that, first of all, our kids today are NOT in constant danger. Also: The vast majority of crimes against children are committed NOT by sneaky strangers, but by people they truly know.”

PersinYouTubeA shot of one of Persin’s Facebook interactions with the unsuspecting teens.

Most of the studies done concerning teens and internet safety date from the mid-aughts. In 2008, the study “Online ‘Predators’ and Their Victims” found that many of the inappropriate relationships formed online between teens and adults occurred when the teens knew they were communicating with adults. An earlier 2004 study cited in that paper found only 5% of offenders pretended to be teens.

In 2013, a study published in the journal Pediatrics found that out of 255 girls — half with a history of abuse and half without — 30% (both abused and not) said they had an in-person encounter with someone they first met online. 10% of those experiences ended negatively.

As for Persin, he now plans to make a similar video on his channel — which is known for viral videos like “Girl Walks Around NYC With No Pants!” and “Making Homeless Guys Arm Wrestle For Money!” — but this time with teen boys.

“It’s going to be scarier, let’s just say,” Persin told The Kernel. “It’s going to be crazy.”

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