The Slender Man Raises Parents’ Anxiety about Violence
The fact that two 12-year-old girls would lure their friend into the woods and stab her 19 times is both shocking and heartbreaking. Their stated motive for the attempted murder, to please an online paranormal figure called Slender Man so they could be accepted as agents in his realm, has left many parents reeling. How is it possible these preteens believed this character was real? How could they have spent months planning to murder their friend? Even more unbelievable, how could they have left her to bleed out and die? Yet initial interviews with family members and neighbors describe the girls as normal, happy-go-lucky 12-year-olds from lovely families.
The knee-jerk reaction to blame the character Slender Man, while understandable, is misplaced. Sure, he’s popular—as witnessed by over 1 million “likes” on his Facebook page. Yes, he supposedly stalks and traumatizes children. But that’s what characters in scary stories have been doing for generations. As his defenders argue, there is also nothing in Slender Man’s mythology that would provoke readers to act for him. More important, after age 6 or so, children typically develop the ability to differentiate fantasy from reality. Until the girls are evaluated, there is no way to know about the states of mind or mental health issues that may have contributed to this tragedy. Regardless, simply cutting off preteens’ access to scary online memes and stories is unlikely to prevent violence.
What may be reassuring is that despite frequent media reports of violence perpetrated by young people, this is actually a rare phenomenon—even in those with mental illness. Unfortunately, however there are no reliable ways to predict who will try to take someone’s life. So what can parents do? Although it is normal—and necessary—for two 12-year-old girls to have their private time and share secrets, mothers and fathers need to be aware if kids’ interests turn into obsessions that can become unhealthy. Asking about what preteens and teens look at online, and why they are fascinated by certain characters, parents can get a sense of the nature and depth of kids’ beliefs. It is also important to be vigilant about marked changes in behavior, friendships, and activities, which can signal trouble. If in doubt, worried parents should seek advice from qualified mental health professionals.