Better World

Kids are being recruited online into extremist groups—could your child be at risk?

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While the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol was just one very visible example of what kinds of extreme viewpoints people are acting on, there are extremist groups brewing all over the country. White supremacist groups are growing wildly, thanks to tech platforms and social media sites like YouTube where vulnerable young people are being recruited and radicalized.

While your child might be the last person you would suspect to be drawn to a group with hateful or violent ideas, they might be closer to being influenced by that type of content via online platforms than you think. Kids are spending more time online, and more of that time is unsupervised as our schedules are all upended. Isolation, loss, and trauma—all of which are becoming more common during the pandemic—can make kids more vulnerable to online radicalization, too.

As a result, though extremist propaganda has been targeting young people online for some time, there are growing concerns about how platforms like YouTube “serve” unexpected and inappropriate content to kids. Over 70 percent of the time users spend on YouTube is spent watching videos suggested by the platform’s behind-the-scenes algorithms, not content the user deliberately sought out. 

This means that parents have to be particularly wary, especially given a Cornell University study that found: “…young children are not only able, but likely to encounter disturbing videos when they randomly browse the platform starting from benign videos.”

What is online radicalization, and why should parents be concerned?

When someone adopts politically or religiously extremist views through content found on the internet and social media, this is known as online radicalization. Extremists are any group who believe they are at conflict with others who don’t share their ethnic, religious, or political identity—to the point that they believe that separation, domination, or violence between groups is necessary.

Young people can be led down the path of online radicalization in many different ways, including:

  • When friends share “edgy” humor like memes or videos that make light of serious topics like the Holocaust or slavery, these might seem easy to brush off because they’re not meant to be taken seriously. But when kids or other vulnerable individuals are exposed to this type of content over and over again because it’s in their feeds, they can become more open to extremist views in the future.
  • In private chats—because of the reach of the internet, direct conversations between extremists and potential recruits can happen a lot more easily, from practically any location.
  • When a platform (like YouTube, Facebook, or Twitter) keeps automatically feeding users related content based on their past activity through its algorithm, it can lead them into a “rabbit hole” of articles, messages, videos, memes, and other content that becomes gradually more extreme.

The New York Times, calling YouTube “the great radicalizer,” reported the latter phenomenon as early as 2018. Their investigation of YouTube’s “autoplay” feature showed that, no matter what you (or your child) search for on the platform, YouTube will recommend videos on subjects that become incrementally more radical. Searches for Donald Trump rallies led to white supremacist rants, which led to Holocaust denial videos. Views of popular Democratic politicians led to arguments supporting leftist conspiracy theories. Even benign searches led viewers down more radical paths—vegetarian videos offered “watch next” videos about veganism, and jogging tutorials spawned suggestions for ultramarathon training.

Other investigations have very similar findings. The Wall Street Journal reported that YouTube’s recommendations “often present divisive, misleading or false content.” Zeynep Tufekci, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina School of Information and Library Science, wrote on Scientific American, “YouTube’s algorithms will push whatever they deem engaging, and it appears they have figured out that wild claims, as well as hate speech and outrage peddling, can be particularly so.”

The motivation, according to The Times, isn’t necessarily to spread radical beliefs—YouTube simply makes more money the longer users stay on the platform. “It’s algorithm seems to have concluded that people are drawn to content that is more extreme than what they started with—or to incendiary content in general,” the author states, and so that’s what YouTube serves. But regardless of the motivation, the result is that kids are often exposed to content with a tone or topic that’s far more extreme than what they set out to view.

Just because a child is exposed to extreme content in one of these ways doesn’t mean they will automatically become radicalized. But if they do become increasingly involved in an extremist group’s online activity, such a relationship could lead to real-world outcomes like your child being caught up in acts of violence, supporting anti-democratic movements, spreading false information to peers, or following a dangerous leader.

What are the warning signs of recruitment into extremist groups that parents can watch for?

You may be able to tell your child is becoming increasingly exposed to extreme content online if they are talking about (or sharing online) any of the following ideas:

  • Fear that a white minority is being oppressed (sometimes referred to as the “Great Replacement” or “White Genocide”), or use of hateful words against a particular race, religion, gender, etc
  • Belief in conspiracy theories
  • Looking forward to societal collapse, an insurrection, or a civil war (some slang terms for this include “boogaloo,” “big igloo,” “blue igloo,” or “big luau”)
  • Misogynistic tendencies, including policing girls’ behavior
  • Believing that violence is an appropriate response to protestors, the Black Lives Matter movement, and/or police brutality
  • A general intolerance or lack of respect for others’ opinions
  • Talking about ideas like these in a way that sounds scripted—a possible sign that they’re repeating things they’ve seen or read

What can parents do if they notice these signs?

If you notice any of the warning signs above in your child, or have other reasons to be concerned about their exposure, here are some approaches that can help:

Be a safe place for your kids. Make it clear that they can talk to you about anything—without fear of being judged. Remember that shame is often expressed as anger and makes people feel alienated—and that anger and alienation can make kids even more susceptible to radicalization. Model how accepting they should be of others’ opinions by really listening to their opinions, without being confrontational or making fun of any extremist jargon they might be repeating. Instead, encourage them to think about who is spreading these messages and what their intentions are. 

Watch and read together. Find ways to consume and discuss current events with your child and teach tolerance and the importance of diversity, such as:

  • Read an article together every day from a reliable news source
  • Listen to a trustworthy podcast on current events together
  • Check Common Sense Media for age-appropriate ratings of movies, shows, and games before watching together or setting them up for screen time
  • Visit a site like the News Literacy Project and go through the quizzes and tips together to learn how to be savvier consumers of news and social media
  • Pay attention to which news sources kids are visiting, and ask them how they know it’s a credible source
  • Start as early as infancy or preschool sharing books that celebrate diversity. For older kids, look for #ownvoices books—meaning that the author shares a marginalized identity with characters they’re writing about. For TV, check out this age-by-age list of shows with diverse characters

Inform kids about the risks. Tell them about the various ways that extremist propaganda can make it into their news feed, even through humor, memes, and uninformed sharing. Explain the different strategies extremist groups use (like discrediting the “mainstream media,” using messaging that is appealing to people who are angry or confused, scapegoating during tough times, and offering seemingly easy solutions to big problems) to gain followers.

But also partner with your kids. Acknowledge that they probably know more than you about the internet and YouTubers, and pair that with your knowledge about things like extremism, racism, and online manipulation. Then work together to find ways to keep those negative things out of their feed.

Talk frequently about online safety and emphasize critical thinking. Demonstrate how you exercise caution before clicking on a link, how you evaluate the credibility of messages you receive, and how you can check and adjust your privacy settings on every platform and device.

Work on strengthening kids’ resilience by giving them a sense of belonging at home. Give them a role in the household by allowing them to help plan and make meals, come up with family activities, and share their opinions on important family decisions. Show ways that your family can help others in the community too, such as donating to a food bank, helping an elderly neighbor, or sending a card to someone who’s lonely.

Empower kids by living your values out loud. Choose music, movies, books, and more that expose them to many different viewpoints and ways of being in the world. Don’t stay silent about racism, white supremacy, and misogyny that you see in the community or on the news. Tell stories about your upbringing and the ways that society has changed, especially highlighting any friends or relatives who helped make things better.

These times may seem dire, especially when you’re confronted with things like the spreading of extremist propaganda in your child’s news feed. But there are always small and large ways to actively choose truth, hope, compassion, and positive change for your family—and as an extension, your community.

For more information on what parents need to be aware of, check out this guide from the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab (PERIL). The FBI also has tips about where extremists tend to try to make contact, and how they convince teens to join their causes. If you’re concerned your child or someone else you care about is being influenced by extremists, you can call the ParentsForPeace helpline at 1-844-49-PEACE for additional advice and resources.

Joanna Eng is a staff writer and digital content specialist at ParentsTogether. She lives with her wife and two kids in New York, where she loves to hike, try new foods, and check out way too many books from the library.