How an imaginary online character influenced two teens to kill

On June 3, 2014, two 12-year-old girls from Waukesha, Wisconsin, did the unthinkable.

On June 3, 2014, two 12-year-old girls from Waukesha, Wisconsin, did the unthinkable.  They stabbed another 12-year-old girl 19 times. The girls said they did it to please “Slenderman,” a popular monstrous character they learned about on the website Creepypasta, according to various news accounts. This site posts fiction delivered in a style that makes it look like a real crime news story. Slenderman is described as a pale, ghostly “man” with extremely long, slender arms and legs. He also has multiple long, black tentacles that protrude from his back.  Able to stretch his limbs and torso to inhuman lengths, he induces fear in order to capture his prey — most often children.  

What is the story behind this story? Apparently, the girls believed that Slenderman watched them and could read their minds. To become part of his cult, they thought that they needed to kill someone. They tricked a girl into going with them into the woods where they stabbed her 19 times and left her to die. The girls had been planning the attack for months, according to various reports.

You are probably thinking that these girls are suffering from mental illness. I don’t disagree. At the same time, upon hearing this tragic story, my inquiring (adolescent medicine) mind wanted to know: could this be adolescent development gone wrong? 

It is normal for teens to go through a stage known as the “imaginary audience,” according to developmental psychologists. At this stage, they live with the feeling that peers, family and strangers are watching their every move and judging them.  Adolescents believe that they are continually “on-stage,” and that any slight imperfection of appearance, behavior or character is seen and criticized by the audience.

The imaginary audience is not a psychiatric disorder. It is a developmental stage seen usually in young teenagers. The extent to which teens experience the imaginary audience varies. For many, it can be as simple as trying on 10 outfits before school or taking part in fads. For others, it can be as complicated as not being able to fully separate their own thoughts from the thoughts of others — as shown on this web page about adolescent self-consciousness from Southeast Missouri State University — or perhaps believing that fictional online characters like Slenderman are constantly watching them and can read their minds.

The story of these 12-year-olds has lessons for all of us:

  • Recognize that young teens may be in the developmental stage when they believe in the imaginary audience and that this may affect their thinking and behavior.
  • Closely monitor our children's Internet and social media usage:
    Use parental controls on the computer to block unsafe websites and monitor activity
    with our teens about what sites are safe, what sites are unsafe and why they are unsafe.  

Amazingly, the young Wisconsin girl survived the gruesome attack.  Like many other 12-year-old girls, she loves purple and she loves hearts.  Well-wishers around the world have been sending her purple hearts including an anonymous United States Veteran who sent her his very own Purple Heart Medal

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