The Blame Game

The complete guide to blaming: How to play and how to quit.

Slender Man

Blaming the media: Is that the answer?

Twelve-year-old girls charged with first-degree attempted homicide. Unbelievable!

A few days ago, two 12-year old girls in Wisconsin savagely attacked a classmate, stabbing her 19 times and bringing her within inches of ending her life. Who’s to blame for this brutal assault? Let’s take a look at the usual suspects.

1)   Mental illness. Most homicides and attempted homicides of late have, in one manner or another, implicated mental illness as an overriding etiology. The perpetrator typically has a history of erratic behavior, psychological disease, or disturbed thought patterns so blatant that it surprising they were ignored prior to the event. In this case, the two girls plotted together for weeks (or longer) as to how they would carry out this plan. They appeared to understand that stabbing someone with a knife had the potential to kill them, which they stated was their goal. Their plan was allegedly quite detailed and well thought out.  We have no knowledge that either of these girls had a history of psychological illness or trauma.

2)   The victim.  When someone inflicts harm on another, we often look to the victim to assign some blame. What were they wearing, what did he or she say or do that would inspire such negative passions? In this case, the victim was not someone whom we believe had wronged either of the girls or posted photos of them on the Internet. She was not just a classmate, but was described as a “friend.” Thus, labeling the victim as the causative agent may be impossible in this case.

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3)   The weapon. This is a difficult issue. If the weapon had been a gun rather than a knife, this would be an easy answer. We would hear cries for more gun regulation and better gun laws. The anti-gun lobbyists would argue that having the inspiration to kill someone would not be of significant concern if there were no access to guns.  But the weapon in this case was a knife. What do we do about a knife? Should we open up the discussion to banning knives? New knife laws and stricter knife regulations? I work in a trauma center and have personally cared for patients impaled by forks. Should we institute a law in which only adults should be allowed to use metal kitchen utensils? The conversation sounds ridiculous in this framework, yet in the light of the gun discussions, it’s worth mentioning. The variety of improvisational weapons available to anyone wanting to do harm to others is mind-boggling. If you believe that guns are to blame for recent attacks at schools, then you must be consistent in your contention and attribute this attempted homicide to knives.

4)   Religion. Many homicides, especially recently, have been attributed to religious disparities, Fort Hood and Boston Marathon to name a few. Anti-Semitism is on the rise. There have been attacks against Sikhs in Wisconsin. Christian Zealots have assaulted pro-abortionists. Religion-inspired assaults are common enough that we must eliminate this motive before moving on to other reasons. In this case, we have no knowledge of any religious motivations or radicalism which may have stirred emotions leading to this crime.

5)   Politics. Political ideologies inspire passion and emotions. They also typically inspire conflict and occasionally violence. There are no political parties that are innocent in this behalf. However, we have no knowledge, at this time, that the girls involved in this attack were motivated by religious beliefs.

6)   Slender Man. Television, Internet, porn sites, video games, Xbox, and motion picture movies. These are all well-known contributors to the increase in violence in our society. Teenagers and young adults are often negatively influenced by violent multimedia (although there is still debate regarding causation). In this instance, it appears the majority of comments on the news and Internet reflect on the negative influence of Slender Man and the power of online horror sites, games, and apps. What does Slender Man have to do with this attempted murder? The pre-teens who committed this crime said that they were inspired to do so out of a desire to be proxies of Slender Man and live with him in his mansion. If you are older than 16 years, you may not have been previously exposed to Slender Man. He’s a fictitious character that has garnered millions of Internet fans through horror and fantasy websites such as CreepyPasta. Slender Man has become the inspiration for multiple horror stories, phone apps, online games, and even YouTube videos of people’s reactions to playing “Slender”. One such video has more than 11 million page hits! The truth is that I love horror films and horror stories. While I was not familiar with Slender Man, I believe in the freedom of the creator of this fictitious character to express himself. These girls may not have fully understood that Slender Man is not a real person and appear to have been influenced by some of the stories. There are already calls for banning Slender Man. Most of the websites that involve Slender Man are supposed to be limited to those over 18 years old. Should the possibility that children may lie about their age and log onto these websites, shift the content responsibility to the authors and designers? 

7)   Parents. Unlike most of the homicides in which we have thus far faced, the attackers in this case were not teens. They are pre-teens! Yet, there are no Internet police monitoring and verifying the age of participants. Consequently, we are left to our own accord to monitor, oversee, and supervise our children. As a father, I know this is a difficult, but necessary undertaking. It is most unfortunate that it often takes a tragic event such as this to remind us of our awesome responsibility to communicate with our children. As a consequence of this gruesome attack, I had the opportunity to discuss Slender Man with my own children. I learned that my youngest daughter (15 years old) had tried one of the Slender Man games on a friend’s phone. She said that it was odd, scary and didn’t appeal to her. I am hopeful that these sorts of heart-rending situations will inspire similar conversations between all parents and their children. Does this mean that a caring and involved parent, even a helicopter mother, is solely accountable for what their pre-teen children do? No. There is shared responsibility. As parents, we need to be involved in our childrens’ lives, but we can’t control every aspect of our their behavior at all times.

8)   Age. These children committed a heinous crime. Yet, they are children. When are they responsible and accountable for their actions? Younger and younger children are being tried in court as adults. At what age should we expect children to be morally and ethically responsible for their actions and behaviors? By age 3 or 4, children typically understand right from wrong, however, parents still represent a child’s external conscience. Children stop doing something wrong because they know that parents are there. By age 6, children develop an internal conscience and moral sense. By age 7 to 8 there’s an adherence to rules and by age 10, children understand more about societal rules and that they may be negotiated. It is also at this stage (10-12 years old) that children develop rational, logically thought and begin to understand how their actions may affect others. The formal operational stage (from Piaget) begins at about 12 years of age. These early adolescents start to think hypothetically: assessing consequences of their actions without actually experiencing them. They consider several possibilities and plan their actions based on potential outcomes. At about 12 years of age is also where children begin to consider the perspectives of others. They become more independent and create social identities through group interactions, engaging in activities for intense emotional experiences. So, where does this information leave us?

Obviously, these girls committed the crime and are thus, responsible, in some respect. Whether they are morally, ethically, and criminally responsible as legal adults, will be the subject of much more debate. While they most likely know right from wrong, their cognitive development is not yet fully mature. With this in mind, it may be easier to blame it all on Slender Man.

Neil Farber, M.D., Ph.D., an Associate Professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin, is a member of the IPPA and the author of The Blame Game.

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