Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

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

By Kelly Wallace, CNN
June 5, 2014 -- Updated 2155 GMT (0555 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Two 12-year-olds are accused of stabbing a friend 19 times
  • Police say girls told them the attack was planned to win over a fictitious Internet character
  • 12-year-olds can distinguish between reality and fantasy as well as adults, professor says
  • Warning signs of trouble? A child not engaging with real life, experts say

Editor's note: Kelly Wallace is CNN's digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. She is a mom of two. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.

(CNN) -- 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.

READ: Ghoulish stabbing raises question: Who is Slenderman?

'Slenderman' creator responds to stabbing
Girl stabbed in homage to Internet meme?
Police: 12-year-old stabbed by friends
Cops: Online character inspired stabbing

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.

READ: Why teens are wired for risk

"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."

CNN\'s Kelly Wallace writes that parents have many questions about the shocking attack allegedly inspired by a fake online character.
CNN's Kelly Wallace writes that parents have many questions about the shocking attack allegedly inspired by a fake online character.

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.

OPINION: Do violent video games play a role in shootings?

OPINION: Don't link video games with mass shootings

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."

Stay in touch!
Don't miss out on the conversation we're having at CNN Living. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for the latest stories and tell us what's influencing your life.

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.

READ: How to get your teens to talk about everything

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.

Part of complete coverage on
October 17, 2014 -- Updated 0252 GMT (1052 HKT)
Ask any teen if they suffer from social media anxiety and they would probably tell you no. But the truth is getting "likes" and the fear of missing out are adding stress to teens' lives.
October 16, 2014 -- Updated 1313 GMT (2113 HKT)
Many photographers have taken it upon themselves to document stillborn and terminal babies' precious moments after birth.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1946 GMT (0346 HKT)
As part of the insurance coverage offered to its female employees, Facebook is paying to freeze their eggs.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1815 GMT (0215 HKT)
Amal Alamuddin was well-known in many important circles long before she snagged the world's most eligible bachelor. But Amal Alamuddin is now Amal Clooney, according to her law firm's website.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 1642 GMT (0042 HKT)
Trends in young adult fiction have shifted from wizards to glittering vampires to bloodthirsty "Hunger Games" and now, to teens coping with illnesses and realistic issues.
October 15, 2014 -- Updated 0056 GMT (0856 HKT)
Before he died this year, 14-year-old Martin Romero wanted to do something for his community.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 2233 GMT (0633 HKT)
A 12-year-old girl called Dick's Sporting Goods out on its lack of female athletes in the Basketball 2014 catalog.
October 13, 2014 -- Updated 1636 GMT (0036 HKT)
Before he was even born, Shane Michael Haley had already met the Philadelphia Phillies, been to the top of the Empire State Building and shared a cheesesteak with his parents.
October 10, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
I couldn't quite believe my eyes when I read the initial comments from Microsoft's CEO on how women who don't ask for raises will receive "good karma."
October 10, 2014 -- Updated 1402 GMT (2202 HKT)
A photo series "From the NICU to the Moon" imagines premature babies in future professions with a series of imaginative doodles.
October 10, 2014 -- Updated 1733 GMT (0133 HKT)
Jessica Dunne and her father Michael P. Dunne
"I don't think anyone is ready for grief. But when it hits you, it knocks you out cold," Jessica Dunne wrote after the sudden loss of her father.
October 9, 2014 -- Updated 1409 GMT (2209 HKT)
Most moms will say they long for a day when moms stop criticizing one another, but most of us are guilty of tearing each other down.
October 14, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
When we think of terminal cancer patients, we don't imagine Brittany Maynard -- 29, vigorous, happy. But she will soon take a handful of pills that will end her life.
October 8, 2014 -- Updated 1404 GMT (2204 HKT)
"Back in my day, we used to walk five miles uphill, carrying all our books in the blistering cold and the pouring rain..." Some schools have found a new way to making walking to school safer -- and more fun.
October 7, 2014 -- Updated 1402 GMT (2202 HKT)
The death of a New Jersey boy, the first health officials are directly linking to Enterovirus D68, has parents wondering whether school is the worst place to send kids susceptible to the virus.
October 7, 2014 -- Updated 1422 GMT (2222 HKT)
It's a heartbreaking time for three families, football teams and communities after three players died last week. Investigations are under way, but some parents are wondering, is the sport safe for children?
October 3, 2014 -- Updated 1726 GMT (0126 HKT)
Here's what some schools are doing to create welcoming environments for transgender and gender nonconforming children.
October 3, 2014 -- Updated 1852 GMT (0252 HKT)
Nothing could prepare this mom-to-be for what she learned at her first ultrasound.
September 29, 2014 -- Updated 1658 GMT (0058 HKT)
A 15-year-old British schoolboy has struck a chord with his eloquent response to actress Emma Watson's United Nations speech encouraging men to join in the fight for gender equality.
cnn, parents, parenting, logo
Get the latest kid-related buzz, confessions from imperfect parents and the download on the digital life of families here at CNN Parents.
ADVERTISEMENT