What’s in a meme? The temporary insanity of youth


Two Wisconsin girls made headlines in May 2014 when they stabbed a friend 19 times leaving her to die in the woods. Their reason? Appease an Internet-based meme known as the “Slender Man.”

Morgan Geyser and Anissa Weier, both 12, planned the attack for months. One girl sat on the victim while the two stabbed her. When asked by authorities why, Geyser replied, “It seemed necessary.”

A meme is simply defined as an idea, fad, behavior or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture; but has the concept been perverted into something more, with the Internet instantaneously linking us?

Before the Shire

Peter Jackson of “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” trilogies co-wrote and directed 1994’s “Heavenly Creatures.” The film starred a young Kate Winslet and Melanie Lynskey in the real-life story of two Australian teens, Juliet Hulme and Pauline Parker, living in a fantasy world. When their parents become concerned and separate the pair, the two take their revenge by killing Parker’s mother. The two were convicted of murder and spent five years in prison. Both later emigrated to Scotland. Parker established a horse riding academy in the Orkney Islands. Hulme changed her name to Anne Perry and became a best-selling mystery author.

But whereas Hulme and Parker killed because they believed their parents would destroy their perfect fantasy world, Geyser and Weier offered their victim as a sacrifice to the Slender Man. Which begs the question: “What happened that would cause two young people to become so deluded?”

Frontal lobes or BFFs?

Jacqueline Woolley is a psychology professor at the University of Texas. She studies children and their ability to differentiate fantasy and reality. Her research has found that by 2 and a half, children are able to reconcile pervasive myths such as Santa Claus with reality. While she has not studied the Slender Man case directly, she says by age 12, children should have as good an ability to differentiate fantasy from reality as adults. “I don’t think that a 12-year-old is deficient or is qualitatively different from an adult in their ability to differentiate fantasy from reality, so I don’t think they’re lacking any basic ability to make that distinction at age 12.”

A possible explanation for the girls’ behavior is an immature frontal lobe. This is the part of the brain that processes executive functions such regulating impulses and anticipating outcomes from actions. A human frontal lobe isn’t completely developed until about age 25. Says Woolley, “It may be kind of an inability to hold the potential consequences and reality in mind at the same time as you’re holding potential consequences within your fantasy world in mind, whereas possibly an adult could sort of manage thinking about the consequences of both of those worlds at the same time.”

Jack Levin is a professor of sociology and criminology at Northeastern University. He has a different theory: intense friendship. “I think it’s the chemistry between these two girls. It was insane. Not in their minds but in their relationship,”he says. “I call some teenagers and preteens temporary sociopaths. They commit a hideous crime at the age of 12 or 13 that they wouldn’t dare commit if you can get them to the age of 25, when their brain has developed more and they no longer have this kind of character disorder. And when you put them together with another youngster, you may ask for big trouble.”

Who’s to blame?

James Steyer is the founder and CEO of Common Sense Media, a child advocacy group. He says, “What you see is kids who are at risk for violent actions or depression or anxiety and who feel those feelings more strongly can sometimes be motivated to act on them by images and stories in the media. I think that the research is clear that there is a correlation between repetitive viewing of violence, for example, and increased aggressive behavior, as well as desensitization to violence.” Steyer does make it clear he is not blaming the media. “This is an issue and an ongoing issue. It’s been true for many years. In a 24/7 digital media universe, it’s that much more prevalent because it’s so much harder to monitor,” he says.

Parents must make a preemptive strike

Know what your kids are looking at online. The Internet, like driving, is a privilege; not a right. Parents who worry their children are browsing in bad neighborhoods must intervene. Do not delude yourself that this is a privacy issue. Children do not have privacy; they have rules. Explain to your children in no uncertain terms of surfing the Net. If they’re smart enough to operate a computer, they’re smart enough to abide by rules of the house.

Parents who are concerned that their child may be becoming unduly influenced by online content should consider psychological testing and evaluation.

White River Academy is a residential boarding school located at the edge of the majestic Great Basin in Delta, Utah. White River focuses on treating young men with addiction and mental health disorders. We offer many techniques and therapies for dealing with anger, acting out and other behavioral issues.

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