Dumbfounded. That’s the common reaction to the recent news story of the Slender Man stabbings. Like many, you’d probably never heard of the fictional paranormal character who is linked to influencing two 12-year-old girls to allegedly stab (with the intent to kill) another girl 19 times in a nearby woods.
Really? A silly online character drives mere babies to kill? Just who is this Slender Man and what kind of influence does he possess to severely skew reality vs. fantasy in these young girls?
Meet Slender Man.
A simple online search of Slender Man will produce a myriad of character descriptions, ranging anywhere from creepy, yet harmless, to someone who kidnaps kids and forces people to attack each other and themselves. Yikes.
Slender Man is usually portrayed as a very tall, thin, faceless character—hence the name. He was born out of a contest that started as a thread from an online forum on SomethingAwful.com. Participants submitted creepy or strange photos, more specifically images for “bogus” stories, with the potential to go viral. And it did.
The Slender Man story is known as a creepypasta. According to the website Creepypasta, the term is a play on copypasta, a slang term for any block of text that’s been copied and pasted all over the Internet. A “creepypasta” is a short story posted on the Internet that is designed to unnerve and shock the reader. It’s not a coincidence that the Slender Man story made it on to Creepypasta.com, a site full of stories of ghosts, zombies, mythology, urban legends, and conspiracies…and horror and violent acts. It’s great for those who love a thrill, but not so great for young, impressionable minds.
Seeing the bigger picture: Age matters
The Slender Man stabbing is horrific for the mere act itself, but the overarching impact of online content on impressionable kids is equally disturbing. Remember, the alleged attackers are 12-year-old girls.
While most adults realize that these characters are entirely fictional, they take for granted the fact that kids may not actually realize that they’re not real. In this case, the website Creepypasta has a wiki where many of their stories can be read, and wikis are often regarded as definitive sources of information.
As the mental health of these two girls is being weighed as a factor in the incident, their age and the online influence cannot be ignored.
David Walsh, a child psychologist, talks about how a young brain is wired and gives insight into the fact a young brain often cannot handle what’s put in front of it.
“The teenage brain is different from the adult brain,” says Walsh. “The impulse control center of the brain, the part of the brain that enables us to think ahead, consider consequences, manage urges—that’s the part of the brain right behind our forehead called the prefrontal cortex.” He says part of the brain is under construction during the teenage years. “In fact, the wiring of that is not completed until the early 20s.”
Jack Levin, a professor of sociology and criminology at Northeastern University, has this to say about age and brain development as it relates to violent acts and crime:
I call some teenagers and preteens temporary sociopaths. They commit a hideous crime at the age of 12 or 13 that they wouldn’t dare commit if you can get them to the age of 25, when their brain has developed more and they no longer have this kind of character disorder. And when you put them together with another youngster, you may ask for big trouble.
Professor Jacqueline Woolley of the University of Texas at Austin’s department of psychology recently speculated about brain development and deciphering. “It may be kind of an inability to hold the potential consequences and reality in mind at the same time as you’re holding potential consequences within your fantasy world in mind, whereas possibly an adult could sort of manage thinking about the consequences of both of those worlds at the same time,” she said.
Gaming with your young child’s mind
So maybe your kids aren’t into Slender Man-esque stuff – that’s great. Rather, they’re just really good kids whose Internet activity consists of playing fun online games. And now that’s it summer, they’re excited about even more time to build stuff in Minecraft.
In recent months, our Covenant Eyes customer service reps have seen an uptick in calls from families whose young adults have lost their college scholarships due to a gaming addiction. They’re flabbergasted, devastated, and left wondering how it got to this point.
It got to this point seemingly innocently, and at a young age. It might sound a bit dramatic if it weren’t true. Parents don’t associate their young kids as being addicts.
While the games that young children are playing might truly be innocent in content, gaming’s effect on their young brains sets the stage. And as the child grows, so does their gaming interests, which can eventually lead to increasingly more violent and sexual content. Pornography is often embedded in these games, allowing kids to engage in virtual or simulated sex acts to accumulate more points.
Dr. Andrew Doan, an accomplished neuroscientist (who once had a gaming addiction) and founder of Real Battle Ministries, explains the issue of gaming on the young mind in simple terms of candy. Generally, kids will pick instant gratification when it’s possible, eating the entire bag of candy now rather than one piece over a week.
Similarly, gaming offers instant gratification–”digital candy,” as Dr. Doan calls it. Problems can start in young kids who indulge excessively in “digital candy,” leading to dysfunctional behaviors such as:
- Rapid brain growth – overexposure to technology on the developing brain has been linked to cognitive delays and attention deficit.
- Obesity – children who are allowed a device in their bedrooms have a 30% increased incidence of obesity (Feng 2011).
- Aggression – kids are acting out what they’re seeing or displaying “gamer rage.”
The object is not to vilify gaming. As detrimental as unlimited gaming can be on a young developing brain, overall gaming has many positive effects as well. It just needs to be kept in check. Many parents just don’t realize how much time their young kids are spending with today’s technology.
The American Academy of Pediatrics and the Canadian Society of Pediatrics advise that kids ages 6 to 18 should be limited to 2 hours per day. Chris Rowan, a child development expert, advises that children and youth are using 4 to 5 times this recommended amount and it’s producing some definite consequences.
What parents can do, right now
Let’s face it: there will always be more Slender Man characters and bad stuff on the Internet. And not every kid is going to go to violent extremes. But too many parents think “not my kid” when it comes to what they’re viewing online.
Until they wake up one day and it is their kid. They’re deep into pornography, they’ve been chatting online with an adult, or they’ve been cyberbullied. And we’re seeing it in younger and younger kids each day. Which makes sense, when you consider the age factor and get back to the science of how the young brain works.
“It’s not enough to parent in the physical world. Kids are digital now,” said Donna Rice Hughes, President and CEO of Enough Is Enough.
“If parents had a monitoring tool, they would have known that these kids were going to this site a lot. Anytime kids are going to a site over and over again, you want to know what that is.”
As parents, we have to literally fight for our children’s minds. Every day. Don’t expect them to be able to adequately handle the things you’re not protecting them from.
If you haven’t done so already, this summer is a great time to set some standards in your household and most importantly, protect your kids. Now that they’re out of school, you’ll need to be extra vigilant to keep Internet use in check. It’s not rocket science, but many parents put off dealing with this because they’re busy, they’re tired, and because of all the push-back from your kids (potential fits and temper tantrums for some).
However, it’s a safe bet that the parents in both these stories wish they could turn back and do things a little differently. The excuses for not acting are now minimal as compared to the end result.
So true is the Frederick Douglass quote, “It is easier to build strong children than repair broken men.”
Today is a great day to start:
- Protecting your children online. Install a monitoring and/or filtering program on computers and devices.
- Making your home a safe place to talk. Use recent news stories to talk about the dark side of technology and help them see where inappropriate on-line behavior can lead.
- Model wise and healthy technology yourself. Lead by example by abiding by the same online standards you’ve set for your children. Show them that you’re on this journey with them.