News Column

Wisconsin 'Slender Man' Stabbing: Media-inspired Violence Is Nothing New

June 4, 2014

Diane Rado, Bonnie Miller Rubin and Quan Truong, Chicago Tribune

June 04--Two 12-year-old girls have been charged with repeatedly stabbing their middle school classmate in a wooded park near Milwaukee, a shocking attack allegedly influenced by a fascination with a fictional pop culture character.

It's happened before.

In a sensational Florida case in 1977, for instance, 15-year-old Ronny Zamora was charged with murdering an elderly neighbor, a killing spurred, according to his attorney, by an obsession with violent television and a show featuring a bald police detective named Kojak.

A couple of generations later, the inspiration is a shadowy creature on the Internet called Slender Man, according to police. The medium has evolved from a TV in the living room to the worldwide web accessed anywhere by laptops, tablets and phones. But the questions and fears remain for parents and society about the influence of a constant stream of media on youth, experts say.

Americans have become accustomed to associations between young men, video games and acts of violence, including the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School, the shootings in a Colorado movie theater in July 2012 and the mass killing of schoolchildren the following December in Newtown, Conn.

But the notion of young girls acting out some dark, digital fantasy is more unexpected, although not unheard of, said Rosalind Wiseman, author of the watershed book "Queen Bees & Wannabees", which inspired the movie "Mean Girls."

"At 12 years old, girls can be into this dramatic magical thinking. ... These are the years of the Ouija board. It's also a time of intense relationships: when they ascribe 'good' and 'evil' to each other," Wiseman said. "Rarely do you need to take it seriously."

Yet sometimes behavior can turn pathological, such as when girls can't distinguish fantasy from reality, Wiseman said.

The Wisconsin victim, also 12, was stabbed 19 times in Saturday's attack but survived despite major injuries, police said. She was found by a bicyclist after she crawled out of the woods. The victim underwent surgery and was reported to be stable, authorities said.

Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier, both of Waukesha, Wis., were charged as adults with attempted first-degree intentional homicide in a criminal complaint filed Monday in Waukesha County Circuit Court.

A 5-inch knife was found in a backpack of one of the girls after they were taken into custody on the day of the attack, authorities said.

According to news reports, the two girls discovered Slender Man on the Creepypasta Wiki web site, which posts fictional short stories "designed to unnerve and shock the reader." The fictional character is described as a paranormal "creature who would abduct his victims for reasons unknown, and sometimes burns down the place where he claimed his victim."

The web site expressed condolences Tuesday for the families involved, but defended itself in the face of calls for censorship and shutting down the site.

"This is an isolated incident, and does not represent or attribute the Creepypasta community as a whole," a post on the site said. "This wiki does not endorse or advocate for the killing, worship, and otherwise replication of rituals of fictional works. There is a line ... between fiction and reality, and it is up to you to realize where the line is."

Russell Jack, the Waukesha police chief, said the attack should be a "wake up call for all parents." While the web is full of information and wonderful sites, it "can also be full of dark and wicked things," he said in a statement.

"Parents are strongly encouraged to restrict and monitor their children's Internet usage."

But parents can face challenges just trying to keep up in a world where elementary school children are already surfing the web and younger and younger kids are getting iPhones that can give them access to the Internet.

Pamela Wisniewski, a researcher for The Pennsylvania State University's College of Information Sciences and Technology, is wrapping up a two-month study that looks at the online experiences of parents and teens.

The study examines different types of risks, including exposure to explicit or harmful content, sexual solicitations, cyber bullying and information breaches. The 75 pairs of parents and teens reported exposure to explicit or harmful content the most frequently, Wisniewski said.

"So far, we've seen that they're exposed to a lot of mature content online, be it pornography, or cutting, or a lot of self harm, or more deviant behaviors than we adults would imagine," Wisniewski said.

Wisniewski does not recommend that parents completely restrict teens from the Internet, noting that it could backfire when, instead of obeying the order, they conceal their online presence. But parents should still be aware of what their children are doing, she said.

Donna Rice Hughes is president and CEO of the Virginia-based nonprofit Enough is Enough, which publishes an "Internet Safety 101" site of rules and tools to keep children safe. Software and other monitoring technology is available to restrict what kids see on computers and smart phones, but it is "sadly underutilized," she said.

In Barrington, clinical psychologist Amit Kakkar counsels parents to put computers in common areas so they can see what their children are viewing and "setting up ground rules from the start" on such issues as which sites are off limits and how long kids should be online.

Kakkar and other experts say the Wisconsin case is complex, adding they can't discern the reasons behind the attack without more information, including psychological exams. But they do not rule out that the girls' fascination with the Internet character could have played a role.

"Do we blame Slender Man for this gruesome act? Probably not. But is it a factor? I think it is a factor," said Dr. Khalid Afzal, an assistant professor in child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Chicago.

What he called "fantastical violence" online can blur the boundary between fantasy and reality, and children can get confused. For example, a video game character can get killed but bounce back to life, but that doesn't happen in real life.

Jamie Howard, a clinical psychologist with the Anxiety and Mood Disorders Center at the Child Mind Institute in New York, said the typical 12-year-old's understanding that killing is a permanent action "is not quite there yet. There can be some variability on cognitive development. And they certainly don't understand the consequences of their actions -- even teens don't grasp that."

At Boston Children's Hospital, Dr. Michael Rich is the director of the Center on Media and Child Health. Research confirms, he said, that virtual violence raises anxiety and desensitizes kids to human suffering.

"They are less apt to identify with the girl they stabbed. All they can see is the cathartic exhilaration of doing the violence against someone," Rich said. "Clearly, there are mental health issues here. No one can stab someone 19 times in an unfeeling way. ... These girls got to a place in their own heads where the illogical became logical."

But he also cautioned against looking for a single scapegoat, even as he understands the impulse.

"I don't think we can lay this at the doorstep of the Internet, computers or even video games."

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drado@tribune.com

brubin@tribune.com

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The Los Angeles Times and Reuters contributed.

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(c)2014 Chicago Tribune

Visit the Chicago Tribune at www.chicagotribune.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

Original headline: Wisconsin stabbing: Violence influenced by fiction nothing new



Source: (c)2014 Chicago Tribune


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