Don't be surprised if your kids know about Slender Man

Jun 4, 2014 at 6:00 p.m. ET
Image: Indeed/Getty Images

A brutal attempted murder is linked to online fantasy horror fiction. How do we talk to our kids about what they're reading and watching online without being overbearing?

Two tween girls stabbed their 12-year-old friend and left her for dead in an attempt to curry favor with an online fictional character called Slender Man, described by fans of internet horror fiction as a demon-like monster who likes to kill children.

Online fantasy prompted a brutal crime

The two suspects, both also age 12, invited their friend to a sleepover during which they planned to murder her by taping her mouth shut and stabbing her in the throat. Instead, they lured her into the woods in the Milwaukee suburb of Waukesha, where one girl held the victim down while the other tween stabbed her 19 times.

The girls left their friend for dead, but she was later spotted by a passerby and taken to the hospital. According to various reports, the child missed being stabbed in a major artery by millimeters.

Kids as young as 5 know about Slender Man

Slender Man is a familiar name to me, because my 9-year-old is deep into gaming and often watched tutorials about her favorite games on YouTube. I thought I'd vetted all the channels and videos she watches, but she still managed to find this character, which is part of a genre called "creepypasta," internet horror fiction meant to terrify the reader.

Apparently I wasn't vigilant enough, because both my tween daughter and my 5-year-old son were well-versed in the Slender Man mythology.

While this is obviously a rare incident, it gives all parents a good opportunity to talk to their kids about online safety and fantasy vs. reality.

Talk to your kids about what they're doing online

"Sooner or later kids will encounter this stuff," says Emily Rosenbaum, a writer and Boston-area mom of three. "I talked to my eldest about this case. I told him two girls tried to kill someone because of something they thought they had to do for someone they met on the internet. Start talking — early."

So how can parents get a grip on their kids' online activities without being overbearing?

We asked Joan Keefe, who helps field calls to a parental support hotline for kids with behavioral issues and has more than 15 years of experience counseling teens, and she echoes Rosenbaum's advice — talk early and often.

"A secret world does exist for [tweens] as they separate from their parents and carve out their own identities," Keefe explains. "No parent should micromanage their child and keep them in a 'bubble,' but instead should focus on having a clear plan on dealing with the reality of the digital world."

Set expectations but don't micromanage

Parents, she says, need to have a script in place to calmly communicate expectations, values and consequences of engaging in certain online activities.

"In our current culture there is an ease of access to the digital world, and for some kids, combined with their emotional immaturity, it's too much for them to handle," Keefe says.

Her tips for keeping kids safe online are pretty simple. Clearly communicate limits for screen time, define what online games, apps and websites are allowed and outline expectations and consequences when those boundaries are not respected.

But in the end, no matter how much monitoring you do there is no substitute for clear and open lines of communication. Coaching your kids to make good decisions is the key. "The goal is to teach your child to make good choices or face real consequences," says Keefe.

The two young girls in Wisconsin will be facing very real consequences — they are both being charged as adults.

More online safety

7 Basic rules for sharing a family computer
How to install parental controls on your teen's computer
Protecting your child's online identity