Photo credit: Reggie Casagrande/ Photographer's Choice RF/ Getty Images
It's always the most horrifying scenarios that create the biggest headlines, and the case of two 12-year-old girls accused of stabbing their friend multiple times in Waukesha, Wisconsin, is certainly making the rounds. In a premeditated attack intended to impress a fictitious character known as "Slenderman," the two girls lured their friend into the woods to play a game of hide-and-seek and stabbed her 19 times, nearly killing her. Although "Slenderman" can be found all over the internet, the two girls accused in this case encountered the fictitious character on a website called CreepyPasta Wiki, a website dedicated to scary paranormal stories and short horror microfiction.
It's important to focus on the word "fiction" when discussing this case. New details will most certainly emerge as the case unfolds, but that doesn't do much to quell the fears of parents questioning an entire genre of writing.
The fact is that kids of all ages become consumed with fantasy in books, movies and online. When Harry Potter fever swept the globe, parents lined up for hours to buy the latest and greatest, and didn't seem particularly concerned about some of the dark themes contained within the final volumes of the series. I suspect the fact that parents and kids of all ages read these books either together or at the same time and talked about character, plot and what might come next helped. If you stop and think about The Hunger Games, Twilight, The Vampire Diaries or even Buffy The Vampire Slayer, wouldn't you say that tweens and teens appear to enjoy fantasy containing some very dark themes? And yet, the vast majority of them don't go on to kill, or attempt to kill, their friends.
Still, a case like this causes parents to stop and think. And perhaps it should. The fact that two innocent looking 12-year-old girls have the potential to plan and execute such a hideous crime should be a red flag. Parents need to be involved with their children at every age, not just in the beginning.
Fantasy versus reality
Children begin to distinguish between fantasy and reality between the ages of 3 and 5. Some will continue to believe in certain fantasies, such as fairies and Santa Claus, for years to come, while others will take facts at face value. Either way, it is reasonable to assume that a 12-year-old can distinguish between fantasy and reality. That said, when tweens and teens become consumed with a particular fantasy, it's important to rely on open communication about the topic to ensure that lines aren't being blurred.
Andrea Nair, M.A., CCC, psychotherapist and parenting educator, suggests that parents take an active role in understanding the themes of the fantasy fiction to help kids remain grounded in reality. "When a child talks about a movie, book or show character, a parent can clarify what a story is — that the person writing it gets to decide what happens, what that character wears and what they do. The parent can also help the child create stories and talk about what elements to include to make it interesting," says Nair.
Encouraging your tween or teen to move from consumer to writer is a great way to help your child learn to take control of the fantasy while remaining grounded in reality. In becoming an author, the child develops the characters and leads the plot. This allows the child to take part in fantasy fiction without attempting to act it out in the world.
While we can't blame the media for every violent attack that occurs among youth, it would be naive to assume that desensitization to violence isn't a threat to young children today. Between violent video games, movies, television shows and violent fantasy fiction, tweens and teens are exposed to increased incidences of violence.
Due to a variety of reasons, including brain development, tweens and teens are generally not known for their impulse control skills. Combine poor impulse control with an active fantasy life and desensitization to violence and you might find that tweens and teens have the potential to make catastrophic mistakes (although not necessarily resulting in murder). This brings us back to parental involvement. The best way to guard your kids against poor decision making is to play an active role in their lives.
Guiding online behavior
There are numerous apps and programs on the market to help parents monitor online behavior. While these programs can help parents stay up to date on various apps used by their kids, they shouldn't be used in isolation. The problem with this world of constant connection and digital overload is that face-to-face connection suffers as a result. No app or program should replace open and honest communication about the dangers lurking online.
Sue Scheff, author and family internet safety advocate, urges parents to take an active role in teaching kids about internet safety. "Monitoring is only the tip of the iceberg," says Scheff, "We need to give our children the tools they need when they aren't being monitored! Let's face it — our teens/tweens are tech-savvy today. It is easy for them to sign into any gadget that is not connected to a parent's eyes." Scheff offered the following tips to help parents guide their children:
- Ask your children about the hot apps and websites of the moment. These tend to change quickly, so this should be an ongoing dialogue.
- If your child is quiet and doesn't offer much information, ask friends in the carpool. Expressing interest helps spark a dialogue.
- Sign up for apps your child is using to truly understand them.
- If you determine that an app is not appropriate, sit with your tween/teen and explain why. Use concrete examples.
- Clean out friend lists and clean up social media feeds as a family. When you do this with your own accounts, you show your child that everyone needs to be aware of their own digital footprint (not just kids).
- Establish digital boundaries and be sure that tweens/teens are aware of the boundaries.
- Never stop talking. Family meals are a great time to discuss these issues and stay up to date on what your kids are up to online.