On May 31, 2014 two 12-year-old Wisconsin girls attempted to murder a classmate via multiple stabbings as a sacrifice to Slender Man. Within the wake of that event, a 13-year-old Ohio girl attacked and stabbed her mother due to her obsession with the demon like on-line fictional character.
As the director of a private mental health practice in Northern Virginia, I have received numerous calls from concerned parents in response to these horrific recent events and most of the callers are saying the same things about Slender Man. “He just seems so evil and dark” and “I know he’s not real, but when you look him up on the Internet, he actually seems very real” and “I had no idea my 9 year old son was looking at such sick stuff on-line.” I have been telling parents that what occurred in Wisconsin and Ohio is indeed alarming and that they have every right to be worried about their children, but the real danger is not Slender Man, rather, it is their child’s access to him.
I do not think parents realize how accessible and ubiquitous Slender Man is on-line for young children. My first introduction to Slender Man came by way of an 8 year old patient who wanted to show me the things he was viewing on You Tube. He actually discovered Slender Man while playing Minecraft, the very popular children’s game. Yes, Slender Man is on Minecraft! There are Slender Man mods for the game, and the Enderman is a monster in the Minecraft game that was actually inspired by Slender Man.
Several other patients over the past few years have introduced me to a variety of disturbing material on You Tube – some examples include, Smile Dog, Jeff the Killer, Creepypasta and 8 Bit Massacre. What is most concerning to me is that these patients have all been young, ranging in age from 8-12 years. What is also concerning is that the majority of these patients have asserted the belief that Slender Man is real and that he is someone to fear.
Slender Man most definitely attracts a young audience, and while it is developmentally appropriate for preadolescents to be interested in scary things or the macabre, younger children do not possess the cognitive or emotional resources to make sense of or manage much of this dark and descriptive and graphic material. Moreover, children with mental health and/or developmental conditions are also vulnerable.
It is important for parents to know that Slender Man as an urban myth is not commensurate with the Boogie Man, and he is not the equivalent of the children’s mirror game, Bloody Mary, or the Ouija Board. Slender Man stories cannot also be compared to camp fire ghost stories. These sorts of stories and games are age appropriate for preadolescents in that they pique a child’s curiosity and scare just enough for effect but at the same time they afford the child with the opportunity to gain personal mastery over fearful and frightening images and material.
To the contrary, Slender Man – who he is and everything he represents in his stories and game – is demonic. Slender Man stalks, preys upon, abducts, traumatizes and kills his victims who are often times children. Slender Man is also portrayed on the Internet as if he is real, and his on-line material very much blurs the boundaries between reality and fantasy, which only adds to his allure and mystique for young children. Rather than serving to foster a child’s emotional growth and mastery, Slender Man instead has the potential for doing significant psychological harm to the ill-prepared, young viewer.
So who is to blame for Slender Man and what should be done? I do not believe anyone is to blame for Slender Man. As a character, game and story, he has a right to be on the Internet. Freedom of speech is protected by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and The Supreme Court has repeatedly protected free speech on the Internet in their Court rulings. Perhaps over time, greater controls and restrictions will be put in place on the Internet to better protect our children from age-inappropriate and potentially harmful material, but I do not foresee that happening any time soon.
For now, disclaimers and warnings is all that is keeping your child from pointing and clicking his way to Slender Man. In my opinion, expecting a younger child to exercise the sound judgment and impulse control to leave an Internet site with a warning and to not give into temptation (or peer pressure) is too much to expect. Because of this, I offer the following recommendations to parents in the aftermath of the Wisconsin and Ohio attacks:
- Children under 14 years of age should be monitored closely when on-line inasmuch as access to age-inappropriate material is high. Developmentally, children 14 and older will generally have the cognitive, emotional and social equipment to handle more challenging material in life, and thus, as older children, they should be afforded a little more freedom and independence than younger children on-line. Of course, each child is unique and you as a parent should know your child’s maturity level in determining how restrictive you need to be with the Internet.
- The Internet should be used by your children in public places within the home (e.g., the family room or kitchen) and not in isolation or away from others.
- Children with mental health conditions (e.g., depression or anxiety) and/or neuro-developmental conditions (e.g., Autism or ADHD) should be monitored\ closely when using the Internet inasmuch as they are generally more vulnerable to exercising poor judgment and poor impulse control.
- Parents should install security controls on all devices in the home that have Internet accessibility.
- Parents should periodically review their children’s on-line searches in the computer’s history.
- Parents should openly talk to their children about their children’s on-line behavior and interests.
Slender Man will likely remain on the Internet and that, in my opinion, is problematic. But as parents, by taking control of what we can take control of for our children and in the home, he does not need to be your child’s problem.
Dr. Michael Oberschneider is the founder and director of Ashburn Psychological and Psychiatric Services. Send questions email@example.com.