Why Parents Should Beware the Slenderman
UPDATE: This post has been updated with the Parent Toolkit for Student Privacy -- A Practical Guide for Protecting Your Child's Sensitive School Data from Snoops, Hackers, and Marketers.
Parents Across America joined with Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood and Parent Coalition for Student Privacy to host a webinar rintroducing the newly released Parent Toolkit for Student Privacy. The Parent Toolkit for Student Privacy was made possible by a grant from the Rose Foundation for Communities and the Environment. This type of information did not exist at the time of the Slenderman crime. Now is the time to recognize that children are victims of Internet predators that may not be as obvious as Slenderman. It is our responsibility to protect them both in and outside of school.
On Saturday, May 31, 2014, in the city of Waukesha, Wisconsin, just west of Milwaukee, two 12-year-old girls lured their friend into the woods and stabbed her 19 times, purportedly in order to impress the fictional character Slenderman. After being stabbed, the victim crawled to a road where a cyclist found her and called 9-1-1 for help. She was hospitalized for six days but has since recovered. The two girls who stabbed her have been charged with attempted first-degree intentional homicide. They are set to be tried as adults because Wisconsin law states, "all murder and attempted-murder charges for children older than10 start in adult court." This article is an attempt to shed some light on circumstances that may warrant investigation in the defense of these two girls.
In March of 2016, Oregon director Taylor Brodsky’s perplexing story Beware the Slenderman premiered at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. It aired on HBO in January of 2017. (Unless otherwise noted, quotes in this article are from the HBO documentary.)
“It was a local story that horrified the nation: two 12-year-old girls lured a friend into the Waukesha woods, where they proceeded to stab her 19 times in an effort to appease a faceless mythical entity known online as “Slenderman.”
Beware the Slenderman Trailer
I didn’t hear about the Slenderman case until recently as I watched the documentary, Beware the Slenderman, on HBO. Had I seen it earlier, my reaction may have been dismissive. But having spent this past summer working on an Edtech project with parent and teacher colleagues at Parents Across America, I feel compelled to share some observations, facts, and insights afforded by relevant research from our work. My intent in writing this piece is not to excuse the actions of the two girls who tried to murder their friend, but only to suggest that there may have been more forces at play that must be considered in their defense.
Before delving right in, a quick synopsis of the documentary is provided by IMDb:
Lurking in the shadows of the Internet, a faceless modern-day bogeyman has attracted the attention and fear of a young generation who whisper his name online. Slenderman lives on the dark pages of the web, where impressionable youth create and cultivate his mythos in message boards, YouTube clips and various other digital incantations. But the online fairy tale becomes a shocking real-life horror as two 12-year-old girls, guided by their devotion to Slenderman, lure their friend into the woods to attempt a seemingly inexplicable, brutal murder. From the depths of one of the Internet's most unsettling creations to the court case that must consider the consequences, Beware the Slenderman brings to light questions of accountability in an age where young, growing minds are only a few clicks away from creating and consuming something that may influence them to commit unspeakable crimes.
“Slenderman is the modern-day bogeyman. Because it’s faceless, because it’s quiet, because it doesn’t speak words, it’s open to a lot of possibilities and a lot of projection. It varies from person to person as to what Slenderman actually is.”
After getting to know the families a bit by watching the film a few times, it became apparent to me that I was witnessing typical American families, going about their typical family lives, doing typical family things until the unthinkable happened. Girls from two families attempted to murder their friend from a third family at the behest of a shadowy Internet presence known as Slenderman. The parents seemed intelligent, attentive, and caring. To this point the kids seemed normal enough, too. They were kids being kids. Even their use of iPads and the Internet seemed normal in this day and age. Should they have known about the dangers lurking within those familiar electronic tablets? Should you?
Children in all three families spent time with their iPads doing classwork and homework, engaging in social media, and exploring the Internet. The parents of Morgan and Anissa have been publicly criticized for not knowing more about the online activity of the girls. There are several moments in the film regarding this point that invoke my ire -- not the least of which is Morgan’s parents discovering as a result of the crime their daughter has schizophrenia and then was not allowed to communicate with her about it. The others stem from moments when Anissa, and her family especially, try to reconcile what happened. At one point (1:39 min) Anissa says,”I don’t think it would have happened if I hadn’t told her (Morgan) about Creepypastas.” That the mere mention of a topic, any topic, to a friend could result in tragedy is a tremendous burden for a 12-year-old to bear. Another instance occurs when Anissa’s father deflects criticism as he explains that he WAS involved in his daughter’s life, and after listing a litany of his engagement says, “For people to say I wasn’t involved, apart from sitting in the corner and watching every move she makes, I don’t know how much more involved I could have been.” (16 min)
As strange as it may seem, the reality is that someone or something had been much more involved with Anissa and Morgan. Algorithms working beneath the radar actively guided the internet usage of the girls, recommending Slenderman and making sure that they returned to similar sites again and again. The same is true for all Internet users. Data is collected on children and adults every time they visit a web site. Through projections using predictive analytics, according to their previous choices, a slate of similar sites is offered to them each time they go back online.
As Anissa’s friend Tyler said, “There are a lot of strange things in the world that we can't explain. So we just make up things to try to help explain them. To believe in something – Loch Ness monster or the bogeyman – isn't that hard. People actually do believe it. You can't say for sure that it is real or not. I do believe they did believe that it was real.”
The presence of Slenderman online may be familiar to students because of an Enderman depiction on Microsoft owned Minecraft, a program that is marketed and disseminated to children in public schools. Slenderman was propelled to recognition by an online photo contest. After the winning Slenderman photo went viral, hundreds, if not thousands, of fans began to contribute stories through Creepypastas perpetuating the online presence of Slenderman. Creepypastas are essentially internet horror stories, passed around on forums and other sites to disturb and frighten readers. The name "Creepypasta" comes from the word "copypasta", an internet slang term for a block of text that gets copied and pasted over and over again from website to website.
Here’s a little experiment I did to mimic the experience the girls may have had. YouTube, a popular platform for Creepypastas, displayed a whopping 432 videos in my Slenderman search results. The first five had titles declaring Slenderman to be real: Slenderman in Real Life, Slenderman Caught on Camera, The Real, Scary Story behind Slenderman, 15 Real Slenderman Caught on Camera, and a five-minute Slenderman the Documentary – each with millions of views. Clicking on one Slenderman story brought more Slenderman titles to my queue until, over a period of a couple of days, my YouTube feed, which had previously consisted almost entirely of late-night comedy videos and news, was populated by Slenderman and other Creepypastas stories. It was almost as if there were no other choices. Clicking on one Slendeman story caused more similar stories to appear. The internet user is caught up in a world that has been tailor-made for them based on previous selections. You might say the Internet is playing a role in shaping the psyche of the user. (Could this be a possible explanation for the phenomenon of Donald Trump?) It almost certainly had an impact on the young minds of Anissa Weier and Morgan Geyser as they tried to navigate a course between the fantasy and reality of Slenderman.
Much has been made about brain immaturity in the commission of juvenile crimes. Of course, the developing brains of children process and react to information differently than adult’s brains do. Mental illness also alters brain function. This is common knowledge. That a court system unprepared in dealing with mental illness and the rehabilitation of children should prevail in this case is unconscionable. What I am suggesting is another component to this story that isn’t necessarily dependent on our views on brain development. Were the girls manipulated by forces that their youthful minds could not overcome? One compelling aspect of the story as the girls tell it is their steadfast earnestness in believing that their families would be killed if they didn’t kill their friend. A more seasoned mind may have dismissed such an idea. How had they become so convinced this was true? What was the catalyst that drove them to action? Did other kids get this same message? Were other similar crimes committed at the urging of Slenderman?
According to CBS news, on June 9, 2014, a Hamilton County, Ohio, mom was attacked in the kitchen by her 13-year-old daughter. The mom, who declined to identify herself, said she found things her daughter had written, and she had made reference to Slenderman. She even created a world for Slenderman in the game Minecraft. The girl reportedly said she stabbed her mother to please Slenderman. ABC News reported another incident on September 4, 2014, when a 16-year-old girl from Port Richey, Florida, set her house on fire in what may have been a Slenderman-related incident. Eddie Daniels of the Pasco Sheriff’s Office said: “She had visited the website that contains a lot of the Slenderman information and stories. It would be safe to say there is a connection to that.”
The Ohio incident occurred nine days after the Waukesha stabbing. The Florida incident occurred a few months after that. What message were these girls receiving through Slenderman that caused them to act out in such violent ways? Who is responsible for that messaging? Isn’t it peculiar that in this short time frame of just over three months, four girls would be provoked to commit brutal crimes when no such crimes have been reported before or since?
The final and most important idea I want to challenge is the notion expressed by Anissa’s father that his son’s learning will be hindered if he isn’t provided with instruction via the iPad. This is an idea that has been perpetrated by technology businesses and the government. It should not be perpetuated by misinformed albeit well-meaning parents and documentarians. Anissa’s father instinctively wants to keep the iPad away from his fifth-grade son but feels he doesn’t have any choice in the matter. Anissa younger brother is playing with an iPad when his dad says: (1:41min)
“Wrap it up chief. We got places to go. All right?
To the camera: We have to run over to the school for a mandatory meeting about iPads. And setting up their iPads and using their iPads, and the disadvantages there’ll be if they aren’t allowed to use their iPads.
Ya know. I don’t think anybody could really begrudge me for thinking the way I do about a bunch of fifth-graders getting iPads based on what this family has been through. At the same token, I don’t want to hinder his learning. I guess I just need to get over my own reservations about it. If I had my way, he wouldn’t have one.”
If Anissa’s father had only known what experts say about technology and children, he may have been able to act confidently on his instincts. An Edtech movement is currently underway in this country to deliver instruction to our children by way of screen devices. There are many labels for this so-called “innovation” in public education: personalized learning, competency-based or proficiency-based learning, and many more. The most pervasive term is Edtech. Slenderman may be the perfect metaphor for Edtech. Once you know about it, you see it everywhere. It can be characterized by faceless men in dark suits extending their tentacles to ensnare schools and students into technology-driven education.
B.F. Skinner and the Teaching Machine, Tablet Edition, 1954 and 2013
The federal government through programs like LearnSphere, Digital Promise, The Learning Registry, and GoOpen Ed has encouraged states to embrace Edtech. Tech companies foresee big profits in marketing their products to schools. Professional classroom teachers are pushed aside in favor of learning “anytime, anywhere.” But is delivering curriculum through computers, tablets, phones, and other screen devices good for children? How are parents able to judge content? What effect does Edtech have on the social and emotional development of children? What data is being collected on children? What are the privacy concerns regarding children and Edtech?
Doctors Present Evidence of Wireless Radiation Impacts on Children
Bill Gates, who is a major Edtech proponent limits screen time for his children. Steve Jobs did the same. Likewise, many Silicon Valley executives chose schools for their children that do not use iPads as learning devices. The American Academy of Pediatrics sets guidelines on screen device usage that may conflict with the amount of time kids at school and home spend on iPads and computers during the day. The health risks of the devices themselves are also a cause for concern. The Electronic Frontier Foundation exposes information about technology and children that can seem like a well-kept secret to parents who have no idea that the usage of screen devices at school has real consequences for children. Parents also have a right to know what data is being collected on their children and who has access to it. Parents may also be astounded to Watch the short video Learning is Earning 2026 to find out what the future holds for their children as a result of the Edtech culture. Is it fantasy or reality? Anissa’s father is well within his rights to ask for educational alternatives for his son that don’t rely heavily on the use of screen devices like the iPad.
Learning is Earning 2026
We should not be so quick to judge but instead consider this single act of violence as a wake-up call and seize it as a teachable moment to protect our children . . . and ourselves. Why not recognize this crime as an outlier of a ubiquitous anonymous culture that exist in plain sight if you know where to look? As a society we have quickly become experts at telling stories and sharing them ad nauseam on the Internet. During that same time period our growth in the areas of reflection, analysis, and understanding the mechanisms that drive behavior has been stunted.
We neglect the effects of internet content on the intellectual, social, and emotional development of children at our own peril. That Anissa and Morgan are being tried in adult court is ridiculous. It has become popular to think of children as short adults. Children are not adults. Wisconsin’s antiquated laws notwithstanding, these girls are children. Anissa and Morgan are creations of our culture. They are OUR children. They belong to all of us. We’ve created a strange, engaging, and at times terrifying world called the Internet and allowed our children to roam there freely without a hand to hold on to. Little did the girls know that while they were searching for the illusive Slenderman, they themselves were being watched surreptitiously. The technological stalking that led to the stabbing of their friend demands an investigation.
The question for us should be: How did this tragedy happen under our collective watchful eyes? Are we going to ignore the implications by placing the onus solely on two very young and impressionable girls? Or, are we going to admit that this deplorable crime is a symptom of a much bigger societal problem? This incident, these behaviors, did not incubate in a vacuum. Though this action of Morgan and Anissa is extreme and the harm suffered by their friend should not be minimized, it is indicative of an inestimable number of hateful and bullying perpetrations occurring every minute of every hour of every day under cover of Internet anonymity -- each with its own varying degree of severity.
It’s not just children who are perpetrators/victims of Internet-induced improprieties. Whether it’s chatting, dating, gambling, investing, texting, sexting, or commenting, many adults admit to lying and otherwise behaving badly at least once. The Internet encourages us to act outside the box. Adults, like children, fall prey to believing Internet legends, scams, and deals that seem logical and real enough. Second Life encourages adults to create avatars that sometimes crossover into real life. Dungeons and Dragons saw a generation of children so engrossed in a fantasy world that some lost sight of reality. MTV’s Catfish is dedicated to exposing the real truth about potential loves to helpless, hopeful adults who cannot recognize what’s real and what’s not in pursuing romance. The Internet provides a cloak of invisibility for anyone who chooses to wear it. It should not be surprising to us that children can become lost there.
According to ABC News, Anissa's mother said when HBO approached her, she agreed to participate in an effort to help other parents who might be caught off guard by what their children are consuming online. "If we were not able to help our daughter,” she said, “we might be able to help someone else.” Perhaps they will be able to bring attention to the harmful effects that Edtech, screen devices, and some Internet content can have on children.
Protecting Our Children
Below is a version of a questionnaire developed by the Parents Across America Edtech Study group. View the webinar here. (Please be patient with the audio quality for the first several minutes.)
QUESTIONS FOR PARENTS TO ASK ABOUT EDTECH AT SCHOOL
What specific electronic devices and programs is my child using in school?
How can I review the content of these programs?
How much time per day is my child spending on edctronic devices?
How much additional time, if any, is my child being asked to spend on an electronic device outside of school hours?
What data, if any, is being collected by electronic devices and programs?
How is the school protecting my child’s privacy?
For each specific program attached to an electronic device that my child is using, what is the purpose of the program, the reason for its inclusion in the curriculum, and the evidence of its effectiveness?
If I choose to opt my child out of programs that depend on the use of electronic devices, what alternative forms of instruction and assessment will be made available to my child?
Last week, May 1 -7, 2017 was Screen Free Week, an event sponsored by Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. It is a week set aside to reflect on limiting screen time. Let's make this week, and every week, let’s resolve to limit the use of technology in the lives of our children because it’s the right thing to do. Let’s rediscover the joys of life beyond the screen. Let's unplug from digital entertainment and spend all that free time playing, daydreaming, creating, exploring and connecting with family and friends! Every week should be screen-free week for children.
May 31, 2017 will mark three years to the day of the Slenderman tragedy. Anissa Weier, one of two girls charged in the Slenderman stabbing case, will stand trial starting Sept. 11. Morgan Geyser's trial is now set to begin Oct. 14.
Deb Mayer is a retired educator and education advocate now living in Oregon. She is a member of Parents Across America, a nonprofit organization committed to bringing the voice of public school parents – and common sense – to local, state, and national education debates.