The Terrifying New Cyber Trend That Targets Kids

There is a new type of cyber bullying that will send a chill down your spine. Here's how to protect your kids.

When designer Eric Knudsen created a character called Slender Man for a forum titled Create A Paranormal Image in 2009he had no idea it would become the driving force behind two 12-year-old girls from the US attempting to murder a classmate.

In 2016 a game known as Blue Whale was posted on Russian social media networks,  the game challenged users to complete a disturbing task each day for 50 days, becoming increasingly dangerous each day and introducing elements of self-harm. The final 'challenge' required the participant to commit suicide.

More recently, a profile under the name Momo was created on the messaging app WhatsApp. The startling photo of a Japanese sculpture piqued the curiosity of users who contacted the profile. Those people were reportedly met with a barrage of abuse and threats to expose private data unless they filmed themselves carrying out dangerous challenges.

In 2017 it was reported that there was an alarming rise in self-produced child abuse material online in Australia, children clearly unaware of the full impact of these images.

These online 'characters' have given cyber bullies a new medium to target vulnerable teenagers by posing as these creations online, spawning endless copycats. 

Fueling the myths are in-depth backstories, forums and secret websites which can seem enticing to teenagers who are struggling with issues offline.

The fictional backstory of Slender Man was so intriguing that it became a part of popular culture and a movie under the same name has recently been released.

Googling the character brings up thousands of results. In 2014 two 12-year-old friends, Anissa Weier and Morgan Geyser, who were both diagnosed with severe mental illness, blurred the line between reality and fantasy and carried out a vicious attack on a classmate. They told authorities Slender Man had told them to do it.

Geyser stabbed a fellow 12-year-old classmate 19 times, while Weier watched on. The victim would survive after crawling to safety and both girls are serving lengthy sentences in psychiatric institutions.

Anissa Weier (L) was sentenced to 25 years and Morgan Geyser was sentenced to 40 years in a mental health unit.  (R)Image: CBS

Teenagers can be particularly susceptible to these online trends as Jocelyn Brewer, a psychologist who specialises in the psychology of technology explains.

"The nature of adolescence is developing your own identity and exploring your increasing levels of independence, being a part of something and belonging is strong pull for young people -- so these mysterious and alluring worlds offer that," Brewer told ten daily.

The interpretations of these online creations depend heavily on the reader and storyteller, and due to the speed of viral trends,  it only encourages various fabrications to gain momentum on social media.

The Momo profile gained popularity in Argentina, where it's believed a copycat of the original profile is linked to the suicide of a 12-year-old girl.

Just one of Momo's WhatsApp Profiles. Image: WhatsApp

A Russian media outlet reported that the Blue Whale game posted on the local social media platform F57 was linked to the death of several teenagers. It also spawned a movie about the phenomenon -- Blue Whale F57.

Brewer recommends parents make an effort to bridge the generational gap when it comes to technology by showing an interest in their online behaviour and encouraging discussion.

Catherine Lumby a Research Professor of Media Studies at Macquarie University adds that the conversations should happen without judgement.

Image: Getty

"The main thing is when they get themselves into some sort of trouble that they have trusted adults who they feel are not judging them," Lumby said.

Teenagers seeking out secret societies away from the control of authority figures is not new. Children have always found ways to develop their own secret worlds growing up, from cubby houses to secret languages.

"The thing about the online world is it allows them to find niches where they can talk to like-minded people,"

Lumby explains that although this behaviour is normal, it can become dangerous if there is an existing mental illness.

Image: Getty

"You can find your people online, you can find a supportive group but you can also find people who will deepen that sense of alienation," she told ten daily.

"The problem with teenagers is that if adults are telling them what to do, they will never listen, if we ask them what we should do, then they will contribute."

Australian law is set up to deal with R+ and X + rating movie and gaming content, and can prosecute for children being exposed to such content but this does not apply to social media age recommendations.

Kirra Pendergast is the Director of Safe on Social and is passionate about online safety. She educates children and adults on the right tools and advice to protect young people online and she knows the solution is not as simple as filtering software.

Image: Getty

Most programs block adult material but Pendergast says no software is foolproof and it's difficult to monitor social media and server-based games.

Pendergast advises that a knee-jerk reaction of removing technology will just drive behaviour underground, instead, she advises parents set boundaries, such as limiting time spent on devices that can connect to the internet and monitoring what your child is doing online,  such as checking which pages they follow on social media.

If you find anything online that is against the national classification scheme, the same guidelines that all Australian media must follow, you can report it to the Office of the eSafety Commissioner.

If your child is being cyberbullied or exposed to offensive material online, eSafety suggest collecting as much evidence as possible and reporting it to the website it originated from...

Our experts agree there is no guaranteed way to protect your children from negative online influences but acknowledge that the online world is part of the modern world, and impossible to censor.

If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 13 11 14. For further information about depression contact beyondBlue on 1300 22 4636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.

READ MORE:  Momo, The Sick 'Game' With Terrifying Outcomes

Contact the author: ncarroll@networkten.com.au