On May 14, an 18-year-old gunman entered a supermarket in a predominantly Black neighborhood in Buffalo, New York and fatally shot 10 people.
The accused, Payton Gendron, livestreamed the attack on Twitch. Gendron is a self-described white supremacist who posted a 180-page manifesto online espousing racist conspiracy theories including the “great replacement theory,” which maintains that people of color are working to replace white Americans through immigration, interracial marriage and eventually violence.
A preliminary investigation of Gendron’s internet history found that he had viewed white supremacist and racist content and studied violent events like the 2019 mosque shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand.
This act of extremist violence from a teenager highlights a terrifying issue that impacts families and communities: the radicalization of young people online.
“The sad reality is that if teens are online, they are being exposed to white supremacist content,” Dana Coester, an associate professor at West Virginia University’s Reed College of Media who has researched digital extremism, told HuffPost. “While there is a lot of public awareness in the aftermath of mass shootings of platforms such as 4chan, 8chan, Gab and others, this content is on popular platforms for youth and teens, such as Instagram, Tiktok, Steam, and Discord, and within games.”
In her research, Coester has observed middle-school-age children consuming memes with a mix of “shame-inducing violent, pornographic, gore, misogynistic, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim and racist content.”
“This content is often portrayed as jokes, and is combined with benign and even wholesome content, which works to desensitize youth to traumatic content, and to create feelings of shame and isolation, which can make them more susceptible for manipulation,” she noted.
Coester’s research has also shown that a young person does not have to be seeking out extremist content to encounter it.
“As a mom of teenage boys, I’ve noticed that they appear to be the target of campaigns to push their ideology further from inclusion and diversity,” said writer and media critic Joanna Schroeder. “These campaigns come in forms that are quite formal, like YouTube ads and paid, sponsored content on social media, to more subtle propaganda like commentary by YouTubers and TikTok accounts the kids already follow and streamers who add commentary into their live video game play.”
The isolation of the past two years has exacerbated the issue, as teens have increasingly turned to the internet for connection.
“Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, teens have been spending more and more time online than ever before,” said Brian Hughes, associate director of the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab (PERIL) at American University. “That time was often unsupervised, so they were more likely to encounter this kind of propaganda and recruitment ― and when they encountered it, were more likely to not have someone on hand to say, ‘Hey, hold on, this looks like it’s trying to manipulate you.’”
Although online radicalization is a complex and systemic issue, there are steps parents and caregivers can take to help combat budding extremism. Below, experts share their advice for what to do if you suspect your teen is getting radicalized online.
Pay attention to your teen’s online consumption.
“As a parent myself, I often tell my friends to listen in on what the kids are watching on YouTube, ask what the people they follow are talking about, and ask if they’ve learned anything online,” Schroeder said. “Often, our kids will surprise us with wonderful things they’ve learned, but we may also discover that they’ve been fed misinformation or even disinformation and believe it simply because they’ve never heard anyone challenge it.”
Pay attention if you noticed your child laughing at or sharing memes with politically charged messages or extremist tropes and vocabulary.
“It’s very easy to accidentally encounter hateful messages online,” said Adrienne van der Valk, senior fellow at the community organizing group Western States Center (WSC). “Young people may not have the digital literacy skills to know what they’re seeing and might be repeating those ideas.”
She emphasized that hearing these messages repeated doesn’t always mean your teen has fully absorbed or understood them, but it’s a good opportunity to intervene and start a conversation about what they’re consuming.
Take note of new joke patterns.
“Kids that are watching a lot of ‘edgy’ streamers, YouTubers and other social media personalities might push the boundaries of propriety at home, consciously or subconsciously mimicking the tone of these ‘edgelords,’” Schroeder said.
Pay attention if your teen is sharing new jokes and memes that are out of character or outside the culture of humor in your family. Humor is often a tactic of extremist groups to cultivate a following.
In 2017, a leaked style guide from the neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer highlighted the white supremacist organization’s strategy: “Packing our message inside of existing cultural memes and humor can be viewed as a delivery method. Something like adding cherry flavor to children’s medicine.”
While humor sometimes involves plausible deniability (“I was just kidding!”), try to disrupt the idea that jokes pushing racist and white supremacist ideologies don’t have real-world consequences. Ask your teen how they think that joke would sound to a friend who belongs to the group referenced.
“As a mom, if I heard this, I would take the opportunity to talk to my kids about how humor can be edgy without hurting anyone else ― and that saying ‘it’s just a joke’ doesn’t undo the harm done when a person or individuals who are targeted,” Schroeder said. “Often, these ‘just a joke’ jokes are ways to normalize harmful ideologies.”
Look out for behavioral changes.
“Parents should be looking for their teens changing their individual behavior, feeling disengaged, disinterested in activities they enjoyed before or expressing grievances or ideologies that are new to their conversations,” advised Amra Sabic-El-Rayess, an associate professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College who researches radicalization. “Parents might also see this culminate into their teens potentially withdrawing completely from expressing their views or engaging within school, local community and even with their own family members.”
She added that radicalization might manifest as teens struggling in school, cutting ties with old friends, spending extra hours online and displaying anger toward adults and peers.
Listen to the views they espouse.
“While there isn’t a ‘profile’ for these types of situations, there are signs that, when intercepted, can be the difference between them falling deeper into the ideology and bringing them back to a positive space,” said Kesa White, a program research assistant at PERIL.
She noted that potential signs can include discussing extremist beliefs, frequenting websites affiliated with harmful rhetoric or even former acts of extremist violence, harming animals, or using racial slurs and other hateful language.
“A big red flag is expressing beliefs aligned with the idea of the ‘great replacement’ or ‘white genocide,’” Hughes said. “Certain conspiracy theories, talking points, memes and cultural icons are perennial red flags, so pay attention to what your teen is becoming interested in.”
Don’t ignore any rhetoric that blames or scapegoats groups to which your teen doesn’t belong for events or political developments they don’t support. Other red flags include expressing strong loyalty to a certain figure online, showing a stringent new interest in politics or specific political beliefs that seem out of left field, or supporting and spreading anti-democratic groups and conspiracy theories.
Talk to other people in your teen’s life.
“To the extent someone is able, try to talk to others in the youth’s life,” said David Jones, the manager of applied research at the Organization for the Prevention of Violence. “A teacher, coach, student counselor, etc. is a good idea as they may have also noticed changes in the youth’s personality or may be able to explain the root of these sudden changes. Trying to build a supportive network around the youth where everyone is on the same page with trying to help is a really good starting place.”
Ask other influential adults in your child’s life ― whether it’s a coach, uncle, cousin or spiritual leader ― if they’ve noticed anything concerning.
“You can ask them to pay extra attention to your teen and help increase their sense of connection and belonging,” van der Valk suggested. “This can be tricky because you don’t want your young person to think you’re going behind their back. But it can be a strategy to discreetly ask, ‘Can you check on them?’”
Don’t shame them.
“As a parent, it can be hard not to be angry, disgusted or even triggered by your child showing signs of having been exposed to this type of content, but it’s important to take a deep breath and to try to talk to your child with respect,” Shroeder said.
As you process your feelings and think about what you might want to say, turn to online resources. In 2020, PERIL and the Southern Poverty Law Center teamed up to put together a free guide called “Building Resilience & Confronting Risk: A Parents And Caregivers Guide to Online Radicalization.” WSC also has a free resource for parents and caregivers called “Confronting Conspiracy Theories and Organized Bigotry at Home.”
Then, when you address the issue with your teen, be mindful of your tone and general approach.
“If you see something that seems strange, ask about it,” Hughes advised. “Don’t come at it from a position of condemning, scolding or ridiculing. Those approaches tend to cause people, particularly teenagers, to dig in their heels, so it could backfire and make things worse.”
Foster open dialogue.
“One of the most important things that parents can do is just to be curious and foster an environment in your home where everyone feels safe engaging in open discussion ― even, and perhaps especially ― about controversial or very political topics,” Jones said. “Ultimately, a youth sharing their exploration of a radical or potentially dangerous ideology with a parent or caregiver is an indication that they trust the person and are open to discussing the new ideas they’re exploring.”
He noted that this opening can form the basis of constructive conversations. So, when you’re addressing your concerns about radicalization, do what you can to keep this line of communication open.
When you see a meme or hear a piece of information that is troubling, use a neutral tone to ask things like: What does that mean? Where did it come from? Who shared it? Why do you think they wanted to share it? What do you think makes this funny? Who do you think would dislike it? Who do you think might be hurt by it?
“It’s tempting to just shut it down and say, ‘Well, we don’t say that in this house,’” van der Valk said. “But if a conversation is shut down harshly, it drastically diminishes the opportunity to maintain an influential connection with that young person.”
Instead, she advised casting yourself as someone who will be consistently available to talk about beliefs. Of course, you don’t have to agree or tell them that something offensive is OK.
“But this affords the best opportunity to help them see things as they are and to bring them back to your family’s values when they later realize down the road that these groups or ideas didn’t deliver what was promised or are proven to be false or misleading,” van der Valk explained.
Try to figure out the root cause.
Keeping the lines of communication open not only maintains your status as a person of trust, but it can also help you understand and tackle why your teen is wading into extremism.
“If you can approach all of it with calm, loving interest, you can try to identify the need your child has that is being fulfilled by these sources online,” Shroeder said. “Do they believe they aren’t being told the ‘truth’ from their parents, teachers and the media their parents consume? Are they feeling lonely and the community they’ve found online (even if harmful) makes them feel less alone?”
She also noted that there can be a heroism aspect to their connection with extremist ideologies.
“I think there is a strong desire within teens, especially teen boys, to be heroes, and I think a lot of these anti-democracy propagandists feed into that,” Shroeder said. “They make them feel like diversity and inclusion are harming people (often using kids and white women as examples of who is supposedly being harmed) and convince them that resisting efforts to make the world safer and more inclusive for all people is the heroic thing to do.”
Build critical thinking skills.
“Most of the time, the kids I’ve seen pulled into these dangerous ways of thinking are bright and interested in the world, and they simply don’t feel they have anyone to talk to about the world whom they trust,” Shroeder said. “They haven’t been given critical thinking skills or media analysis tools. We need to practice this stuff with our kids starting when they are small, but it’s not too late with teens.”
Teaching media literacy helps young people learn to assess sources, motivations and points of view. It’s also important to expose your kids to diverse stories and perspectives throughout their lives.
“Discuss those stories with them so that your child can critically think and question what an extremist group might curate for them,” Sabic-El-Rayess recommended. “For many it is transformative as they become self-aware and understand they can connect with someone different from them. It helps them act differently and approach others with curiosity, not hate.”
Equipping young people with critical thinking skills and experiences helps them become informed consumers as they inevitably face propaganda and misinformation.
“There are plenty of young people engaging with extremist-adjacent content who will never become violent, or who will engage and ultimately reject it or move on to help combat it,” Coester said. “That’s what we try and foster. Help young people understand how they’re manipulated and move them toward peer-to-peer disruption of those paths.”
Reach out for help.
“When in doubt, reach out to a trusted mental health professional for help in talking calmly to your child about these issues,” Schroeder advised.
Although mental health counselors can be a good resource, keep in mind that they may not be trained to specifically deal with extremism.
“If someone in your life ― young or old ― starts to become intensely focused on an ideology or some form of conspiracy theory, and starts to reorder their life around this new belief system, severs social ties, and talks about violence being acceptable, it is worth considering reaching out for some form of specialized support,” Jones advised.
There are many organizations and programs involved in deradicalization. Hughes recommended contacting Hope Not Hate and Parents for Peace for guidance if you think your teen is being radicalized.
“While PERIL advocates for noncarceral solutions, if someone suspects the teen is on the verge of violence or discusses ‘hypothetical’ violence, law enforcement should be contacted immediately,’” White added.
Remember that radicalization is a complex, systemic issue that can’t be fully combated in isolation. It impacts communities, as well as individual families.
“Organize with other parents, teachers, faith leaders, health professionals and community members to combat this and to fully recognize it for the battle for a generation that it is,” Coester said.