‘Slenderman’ stabbing case: When can kids understand reality vs. fantasy?

Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier

Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier

WAUKESHA, Wisc. — The case of two 12-year-old girls accused of stabbing their friend multiple times to impress a fictitious Internet bogeyman raises so many questions for parents.

How can we be sure our children can truly separate reality from fantasy? What are the warning signs that children are confusing the two?

And how on Earth can we keep tabs on everything they’re consuming online?

Police said the girls told them they attacked their friend on Saturday to win favor with Slenderman, a make-believe online character the girls said they learned about on a site called Creepypasta Wiki, which is filled with horror stories.

Children of all ages are consumed with fantasy in books and movies such as “Harry Potter, “Twilight” and “The Vampire Diaries,” and don’t seem to have a problem making the distinction between what’s real and what’s not. But a story like this makes any parent wonder: Whoa, maybe my kid doesn’t get it?

Mary Ellen Cavanagh of Ahwatukee, Arizona, mom to an almost 14-year-old daughter and a 19-year-old son, said she sees the line between fantasy and reality “thinning drastically among our youth.”

“I worry about it with my own daughter and her friends,” Cavanagh said on Facebook, adding that her daughter and her friends enjoy relatively innocent fantasy shows on television and online. Still, she worries that their “obsession” could shift to a “more violent genre at any moment.”

“I think today’s generation has been desensitized by the various forms of media, and we as parents (myself included) have done a piss-poor job giving them proper guidance,” Cavanagh said.

Professor Jacqueline Woolley of the University of Texas at Austin’s department of psychology studies children’s thinking and their ability to make distinctions between fantasy and reality.

She has found that by the age of 2½, children understand the categories of what’s real and what’s not, and over time, they use cues to fit things like unicorns, ghosts and Santa Claus into the real and not real boxes.

By age 12, the age of the girls in question in this case, Woolley said, she believes children should have as good an ability to differentiate fantasy from reality as adults.

“I don’t think that a 12-year-old is deficient or is qualitatively different from an adult in their ability to differentiate fantasy from reality, so I don’t think they’re lacking any basic ability to make that distinction at age 12,” she said.

Woolley did suggest, adding that she was purely speculating, that the fact that the frontal lobe of the brain is not fully developed until age 25 could be relevant in this case. The frontal lobe controls what’s called executive functions, which include impulse control and planning in the sense of anticipating all the different aspects of an outcome.

“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.

On the other hand, she said, many children can create imaginary worlds and are able to differentiate what’s happening in their make-believe worlds with what’s going on in real life.

“I really don’t think that you can put your finger on a cognitive deficit entirely,” she said about this case. “I mean it may have played some kind of role, but I think there’s more going on.”

When teens are ‘temporary sociopaths’

Criminologist Jack Levin, a professor of sociology and criminology at Northeastern University, points to another possible trigger: the relationship between the two girls accused in the stabbing.

“I think it’s the chemistry between these two girls. It was insane. Not in their minds but in their relationship,” said Levin on CNN’s “@This Hour.” It may turn out that one of the girls was more troubled and that caused the relationship to take a tragic turn, he added.

“I call some teenagers and preteens temporary sociopaths,” he said. “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.”

Linda Esposito, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist in Los Angeles, said she has provided counseling to hundreds of 12-year-olds over the years, treating children in inner-city schools, foster care, protective custody and through private practice.

“And I’ve yet to encounter such cold-blooded minds,” said Esposito, who hosts a blog on psychotherapy called Talk Therapy Biz. “I imagine as the story unfolds, many red flags will be uncovered. Nobody just snaps, not even innocent-looking kids.”

The role of media

Beyond any issues the girls were facing, their relationship and their ability — or inability — to separate reality from fantasy, there is another issue: the media, according to the leader of a watchdog group for children’s media.

“What you see is kids who are at risk for violent actions or depression or anxiety and who feel those feelings more strongly can sometimes be motivated to act on them by images and stories in the media,” said James Steyer, chief executive officer and founder of the nonprofit child advocacy group Common Sense Media.

“I think that the research is clear that there is a correlation between repetitive viewing of violence, for example, and increased aggressive behavior, as well as desensitization to violence,” he said.

No one is blaming the media, Steyer said, but, “We’re also not saying it doesn’t matter, because it does matter.”

“This is an issue and an ongoing issue. It’s been true for many years. In a 24/7 digital media universe, it’s that much more prevalent because it’s so much harder to monitor.”

What can parents do?

That raises the question of what parents can do, especially when it seems impossible to know everything our children are doing online.

“Parents have to be involved and proactive before even allowing young children to become active online and must continue to monitor, educate and discuss behavior and situations throughout their teen years,” Anna White Berry said on Facebook. She’s a mom of two in Littleton, Colorado.

“Too many parents take a back seat because they either don’t want to bother learning ‘new’ technology and sites or feel like they need to give their children privacy,” she said.

Warning signs for parents that their children may be having trouble absorbing what they’re engaging with online, or differentiating fantasy from reality, include withdrawing from real friends, not engaging with other aspects of their lives, self-injury and injury to others, experts say.

Steyer of Common Sense Media said the takeaway from this latest tragedy is the need for every parent to talk with their children, but he concedes that isn’t always enough.

“I think that the key is you need to have an ongoing dialogue with your kids and learn what they’re doing, and what they’re watching, surfing and playing with and you can’t always unearth everything,” Steyer said.

“You try to be involved. You try to set context. You try to know, but it’s not easy,” he added. “You can’t blame the parents. There’s no one factor involved. There’s no one simple factor.”

Do you think the line between reality and fantasy is thinning dramatically for today’s generation? Share your thoughts in the comments or tell Kelly Wallace on Twitter or CNN Living on Facebook.

23 comments

    • ljm

      idiotic response. Do you understand there’s a difference between an excuse and an explanation?

  • tori

    The question “And how on Earth can we keep tabs on everything they’re consuming online?” That ones easy. Don’t let your kids get online! And Put password locks on channels that have showes not ment for children but children end up watching anyway. In other words stop being lazy and start being a PARENT!

    • sinner 3

      Right on target with your comment ! kids this age should be asking permission for every thing !

  • Darrell Parks

    Before twelve years of age. The parents don’t want to learn the technology. LOOK AT THE DADBLAMED SCREEN AND SEE WHAT’S ON IT! You can’t blame the parents? Children twelve and under don’t need supervision?

  • sinner

    well,I read about all the BS on this page you can take,just a lot of excuse making and denying responsibility !!

  • noneya

    when a parent walks into their childs room maybe they should look at whats on the screen thier watchin and things like this wouldnt happen if i woulda walked in and seen my daughter watchin somethin like this i woulda flipped out on my child what happen to bein a parent

  • FaithC

    Parents need to be parents, not friends. Parents also need to spend time with their kids and not sit with their nose in the TV, ipad and laptop themselves. As long as the kid is quite in their room most parents don’t bother to check on them.

  • starlight

    ok im going to put my 2 cents in here. parents, you need to take a second and look into your kid’s interests my parents do and they make sure to know what im doing on the internet. my friends and i have interests with all kinds of creepy pastas and speak about them frequently. our conversations are all educated theories based on the stories or telling the other of a well written story. the stories should not be held accountable. the girls where taking a story that is nothing more than an internet campfire story.

  • samantha klonowski

    The slenderman isnt just an internet sensation. Look up its histories. No excuses for what the gorls did. But look it up

  • eden

    The whole thing with slenderman is that these children were way to young and immpressionable to be on the creepypasta site, or to be playing the games or reading the lore. I am 15, and read these gory scary stories all the time, yet i am not sadistic, or murderous, or even have the slightest desire to be. The website should have age warnings, yes, and i do agree that parents should be on their childrens cases more, but my parents knew i was on the website and everything, they know i like reading that stuff. Me and all my friends are appalled at what these children did, and there is absolutley no reason they should have known about slenderman.
    Nextly, there are no satanic roots to slenderman, period.
    I heard a news channel saying that they made “sacrifices to slenderman,” and i wonder what that means. Slenderman is a 100% fictional character, that STALKS, and doesnt really take “sacrifices”, anybody who knew ANYTHING about slenderman could tell you that.
    This was just a case of immature and very impresionable children getting ahold of content to mature for them, and ruining every thing for those of us who can handle the content, (and i am very sorry and empathetic to the girl who was stabbed, although it may sound as though i am not)
    I can handle what i read, but obviously they could not, and they dont even do their research.
    (my argument is weak because i just took finals and am very tired, i am usually capable of a more convincing stance, and i apologise for grammatical mistakes and errors.)

    • Advice.

      Buddy. It’s not your argument thats weak, just the opposition. You probably read every single comment posted before you. Are these people really worth debating with? Most of these comments are, for a lack of a better word, stupid. Don’t drop down to their level.

  • Sky

    Hey I’m 12 and I go on CreepyPasta Wiki ( yet don’t go all psycho) because I from time to time like to scare myself a little with horror story or so.But this really I mean even this “Slender man” was real they’d be dead too.And now my favorite horror story sight might be banned because of their to naive to depart from the fantasy! *(

  • lauren

    I agree with all the comments about what parents can do, and I practice them myself. My children (ages 5,7, and 9)) are absolutely not allowed on the internet unless I am right next to them. No matter how many times they protest and insist that everyone in their class visits all these game sites, etc, the answer is NO. Period! Yes it gets annoying to hear them whine or to hear them argue with me, but guess what? I’m in charge because I am the parent! So if they dont stop arguing with me, they get sent to their room for an hour. We have one tablet in the house that we all share and none of them have phones. We have a Wii and a playstation as well but they have to ask permisiion to use any of it, including turning on the television. We arent amish, and my kids have plenty of fun and friends. I just dont allow technology or television to take up more than an hour of their day. And as for that hour, it’s after they have first gone outside and played or read a book or played a board game together, did crafts or helped me make dinner. And when they do play, I play with them! I work full time and I have three kids with one on the way, so its not always practical to play with them every second of the day because I have other stuff to do and a household to manage. But communication must be established early, and they arent going to want to communicate with a mother who is only present when she is asking them to clean their room or do their homework. So yes, I actually sit on the floor and play games with them, or turn on the music and dance with them, have fun with them, and let them know I am their friend after I am their mom. It’s hard work. I am always busy, and I go to bed exhausted. But I am responsible for their lives and happiness and health and I do not take that lightly. To eb a good parent, you just can’t be lazy. Parenting is hard work. It’s not a dress up game with life size dolls like a lot of parents seem to think. It’s about shaping people and minds and teaching every second of every day. It has nothing to do with age either. I am only 30 years old and my husband is 33. It’s not like we are older parents with no desire to go out or have fun for ourselves. We definitely want that. But caring for our kids comes first! and besides that, as a society, we have done ourselves the GREATEST injustice by failing to discipline and punish children who are disobedient. Demanding obedience is not the same as brainwashing. My children all think for themselves, and have their own tastes, desires, dreams, likes and dislikes. They also have the ability to weigh decisions with consequences because I set rules before them. If they never have rules to follow and consequences for breaking them, how can they possibly learn to think and discern for themselves what is the best course to follow on anything in life, let alone whether or not to follow through with violent fantasies as these girls have? My chidlren have rules, like every member of any society, and the respect of and obedience to those rules and the recognition of authority starts in the home. If parents are not demanding obedience of their children within the walls of their homes, what makes them think these chidlren are going to bow down to any other rules for the rest of their lives? and they are out there, those rules, only they are called laws. And the results for not following them are prison time instead of grounding and a lack of freedom for a lifetime instead of for a week. So which is worse? Dealing with the effort it takes to follow through with consistent discipline, or dealing with being the parent of the monster who killed, raped, or stole? The sad thing is, we can do everything right, and raise wonderful little people that will contribute something great to this world just by being alive in it. But until every parent grows up and does what they need to, our children won’t be safe, as we have to send them out into the same world that the lazy parents are sending their little monsters into. And yes, I realize their is a glaring caveat of mental illness in here which cannot be blamed on parents. However, if there is mental illness or warning signs, parents have to be brave enough to step up and do what they need to for the safety of their child and other children. They need to stop thinking about the temporary discomfort or disruption to their child and their lives, and start thinking about the end game. As a parnet, it’s always about the end game. Had the parents of these kids paid more attention, this tragedy would have been avoided. And I dont see where that’s a matter of debate.

  • Gino

    To blame the media or its content is to absolve the responsible parties of any kind of consequence for their obvious irresponsible behavior. The parents absolutely had to be a contributing party in this, whether by simple ignorance or actual abuse. The details of the case, in my opinion, will reveal much about the situation as it develops. I think its safe to say that MOST 12-year-olds would not commit this sort of crime, regardless of exposure to ANY SORT of fiction. Someone should have been aware of the inability of these girls to percieve the difference between reality and fiction, someone should have been more interested in the details of the relationship between these girls and the relationship they had with the victim, and someone should have been aware of the actions these girls took on the night of the tragic incident. Why were they in a park at night to begin with, and how did they get there without the parents knowing? How did they get a knife? I can confidently say that these things would not be possible for a child to do if I was responsible for their wellbeing. That being said, the issue is not with the media our children are being exposed to, its content, or its availability. Were kids not watching creature features every night as far back as the 70’s? Was there not comic books and magazines, which exclusively catered to the same kind of horror, readily available to children as far back as the early 1900’s? Simply put, it is our involvement in the lives of our children which can make the difference between a child who will commit murder after reading a story and one who won’t. It is our duty to cultivate the understanding of fiction and reality in our young, and it is our duty to keep ourselves aware of the developing trends in their generation’s media and culture so that we have the tools we need to put things into perspective and provide them with that understanding. If the issue is, in fact, a mental health issue, and these girls are clinically insane, by no fault of their guardians, then I ask why those mental health issues haven’t been addressed. I refuse to belive that a person can spend 12 years raising someone and never notice even a single indicator that that person might need serious psychiatric help. Unless these girls suddenly “snapped” (unlikely) then I don’t see anyone else to blame besides the parents. Then, perhaps, the teachers, coaches, pastors, guidance counselors, doctors… anyone who might have had the opportunity to notice any particular sign that these girls were unstable. The only other people that can be held accountable are the girls themselves. You certainly can’t blame a guy who had an idea about a spooky ghost one day and then put it on the internet.

  • Kevi Nmaiden

    Society keeps getting worse and worse and we want to know whats happening to our children.
    Why did these things rarely happen just 30 years ago now they are common place.
    One thing that has changed in our society here in the USA is less people are attending church the other thing is a huge part of the population are taking antidepressants that suggests mental health is a huge issue and is something we should focus on.

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