Police said the girls told them they attacked their friend on Saturday to win favor with Slenderman, a make-believe online character the girls said they learned about on a site called Creepypasta Wiki, which is filled with horror stories.
Children of all ages are consumed with fantasy in books and movies such as "Harry Potter, "Twilight" and "The Vampire Diaries," and don't seem to have a problem making the distinction between what's real and what's not. But a story like this makes any parent wonder: Whoa, maybe my kid doesn't get it?
Mary Ellen Cavanagh of Ahwatukee, Arizona, mom to an almost 14-year-old daughter and a 19-year-old son, said she sees the line between fantasy and reality "thinning drastically among our youth."
"I worry about it with my own daughter and her friends," Cavanagh said on Facebook, adding that her daughter and her friends enjoy relatively innocent fantasy shows on television and online. Still, she worries that their "obsession" could shift to a "more violent genre at any moment."
"I think today's generation has been desensitized by the various forms of media, and we as parents (myself included) have done a piss-poor job giving them proper guidance," Cavanagh said.
Professor Jacqueline Woolley of the University of Texas at Austin's department of psychology studies children's thinking and their ability to make distinctions between fantasy and reality.
She has found that by the age of 2½, children understand the categories of what's real and what's not, and over time, they use cues to fit things like unicorns, ghosts and Santa Claus into the real and not real boxes.
By age 12, the age of the girls in question in this case, Woolley said, she believes 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," she said.
Woolley did suggest, adding that she was purely speculating, that the fact that the frontal lobe of the brain is not fully developed until age 25 could be relevant in this case. The frontal lobe controls what's called executive functions, which include impulse control and planning in the sense of anticipating all the different aspects of an outcome.
"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," she said.
Image: Girl looking at tablet screen, via Shutterstock