A Parents Guide to Online Radicalization and Extremism
The past few years have seen the internet evolve. Contrary to being a platform where people connect, share ideas, and join interest groups, the internet has metamorphosed into a platform where extreme ideologies and conspiracies thrive. Extremists are leveraging the online world to influence and mobilize young children to execute felonies.
Like other social vices and their impact on families, extremism and radicalization have the potential to wreck family bonds
For most parents, particularly those whose young ones have been influenced and victimized, extremism and radicalization are serious points of concern. If you’re like any of these parents, this article, based on a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, will guide you on the concept of radicalization, how it happens, and ways to protect your young ones.
What’s Online Radicalization?
Online radicalization is when an individual adopts extreme political or religious views due to their online activities. These activities could be chatting, playing games, reading, or watching videos. On the other hand, radicalization involves any process that persuades an individual to adopt extremist views.
Extremists believe in far-reaching conflicts between themselves and those with varying gender, racial, and political views. They insist that the only way to resolve their differences is to employ violence and separation.
These beliefs defy moral principles, respect for others, the rule of law, and individual beliefs. In addition, their beliefs challenge democracy, especially institutionalized systems of political powers.
Although all extremist views won’t lead to violence, most will incite violence and terrorism. And for this reason, it’s important parents understand how radicalization happens.
How Does Radicalization Happen?
There’s no one-route way to radicalization. Radicalization happens in many ways. However, below are some of the most common ways radicalization occurs:
- Peer association: One’s peers and online acquaintances can sometimes influence them with extremist propaganda and content. This content often comes off as harmless jokes expressed through imagery, an animated video, or meme. While these jokes seem non-toxic, research says otherwise. According to Whitney Philips's recent publication, exposures like this disguised as fun — prepare people to consider and adopt radicalization in the future.
- Filter Bubbles: online radicalization can happen when there are little to no opposing views to challenge extremist views. It’s proven that people will embrace extremes when they happen to spend time with only like-minded people.
- Content “Rabbit holes”: Radicalization can happen through exposure to extreme content types like text, memes, videos, and animations. When people encounter these materials through recommendations or personal research, they risk being influenced. A good example is social media platforms, where algorithms recommend content based on what people watch.
- Direct interaction with online extremists: Unlike before, when extremists were limited to offline activities, the internet has made it easier for them to interact directly with people. Online platforms such as forums, social media networks, and games are avenues for radicalization to happen. Extremists can converse with young people via their smartphones and family computer to lure them to their beliefs.
Regardless of the above methods of radicalization, it’s worth noting radicalization doesn’t happen automatically. Young people may have encountered extreme views via content, but before they become radicalized, there are often signs to alert you. Watch out for warning signs that indicate a child is being radicalized.
Warning Signs of Radicalization
Warning signs reveal what an individual is being exposed to online. When a young person starts showing any of these signs, they’re being exposed to radicalization. Some warning signs to note are:
Belief in insurgency:
When a child shows support for classical eras of political violence such as the January 6th Capitol insurrection, the second American Civil War, or other past political conflicts between the US government and rebels, they’re being radicalized.
Supports conspiracy theories:
Conspiracy theories might appear as something as outlandish as Jews being shape-shifting aliens. Endorsing this type of conspiracy theory might lead to antisemitism, and children who support this theory are likely to accept other conventional antisemitic views.
When a young person shows contempt for immigrants, blames them for societal inadequacies, discriminates, and treats them as inferior, they’re being exposed to radicalization materials. People who feel immigrants cause their social issues are prone to be radicalized.
Hatred for women is one of the signs of radicalization. If a young person believes in policing women’s behavior, supports male supremacy, or believes in sexual nihilism (a concept that sex is pointless and women should be blamed for it), they’re adopting radicalization.
These signs and more are indicators that a young person is being radicalized. However, beyond these signs are drivers that scare young people into being radicalized.
Why People Become Radicalized
People become radicalized when they feel helpless and defenseless. Also, experiences can push young people to extremist groups. This section will cover some of these experiences that drive people towards extremist groups.
Young people who feel isolated, abandoned, and lonely are likely to join extremist groups. To them, joining these groups makes them feel acceptable while alleviating feelings of loneliness.
Longing for friendship
The desire for friendship is a major driver of extremist groups. Every young person believes in sharing the same beliefs with their friends and those they love. Thus, if a family member or close friends share extreme views, we’ll typically want to share the same views.
Loss and emotional distress
Losing a loved one, economic hardship, and assaults can cause emotional distress. When people are stressed, they become vulnerable to radicalization.
A declining economy, societal inadequacies, and environmental disasters can cause frustration. For this reason, people will often resort to extremist groups to seek answers and amplify their grievances.
Confusion and uncertainty
The increasing global crises taking the world by surprise can leave young people feeling overwhelmed and disconnected. However, extremist groups often provide false solutions and easy escape routes that make them feel safe and settled.
While some of these experiences are evident in people who became radicalized, not all young people showing these factors will adopt extremist views. That said, if you find your child expressing any of these factors, pay attention and use the tips in the section below to help them.
What Can Parents Do to Stop Radicalization?
As a parent, you can stop radicalization and help your young one stay clear of extremist groups with the following strategies:
- Ask questions: Strive to ask your child what they do online and the groups they belong to. Make your questions genuine and less of an attack on the child. This will help them feel relaxed about discussing their activities with you.
- Listen: A key way to stop radicalization is to listen to young people when they converse. Take note of new slang, expressions, and beliefs they conform to. Don't chide them if they keep reiterating conspiracy theories or extremist beliefs. Instead, take your time to educate them on the truth.
- Educate and advise: When young people begin to show signs of radicalization, educate them on its concept. Explain the strategies and ways extremist groups exploit and influence people through misinformation. Also, advise them on ways to recognize these groups and how they can save themselves online.
- Discuss and encourage: Don’t shy away from discussing key issues in society and the world with children. Make time to analyze news and world happenings. Additionally, encourage children to vet the messages, information, and publications they consume online. This will help them recognize materials that promote radicalization.
As a parent, you’re better positioned to spot signs of radicalization in your children. While you may be unable to track their online activities, you can ask them open-minded questions to uncover what they do online.
Apart from that, always educate and sensitize children on the concept of radicalization and how extremists manipulate people. Teach them to recognize extremist materials and ways to block them off safely.
If they feel confused or frustrated at any time, pay attention to their grievances and offer tips to help them navigate and find their balance again. Ultimately, with time, your child will be well-informed on ways to shun extremist groups both off and online.
"My Child Is Sharing Conspiracy Theories and Racist Memes. What Do I Say?”
“Ten Ways to Fight Hate: A Community Response Guide”
The U.S. Department of Justice Hate Crimes Reporting