How parents can learn to recognize online radicalization and prevent tragedy – in 7 minutes
After their 21-year-old son allegedly shot and killed 23 people in an El Paso Walmart in 2019, his family publicly described his actions as attributable to “ideas and beliefs we do not accept or condone.” Such words are all too common from families whose children have committed terrible atrocities. Many parents believe their own child is incapable of violence, or trust that their own family values will be enough to protect their child from extremist and hateful beliefs.
Both assumptions are sadly wrong.
Helping all parents and caregivers recognize youth vulnerabilities to persuasive extremist rhetoric – particularly online – is key to preventing further tragedies. As we start to enter a post-pandemic era with more in-person gatherings, following a year in which children’s screen time soared, there’s no more important time to equip them with these preventative tools. There are already troubling signs of increasing youth violence and extremism, with over 180 mass shootings just this year.
The good news is that equipping parents isn’t all that difficult. It doesn’t take much to enable front-line adults – parents, caregivers, teachers, coaches, mental health counselors and others who work with youth – to better recognize and respond to extremism.
Seven minutes to make a difference
In fact, it only takes a few minutes for adults to be better equipped to recognize and act on signs of radicalization among youth they know. After we developed a guide to help parents better understand online radicalization, we studied what over 750 parents and caregivers learned from reading it. We found that after only seven minutes of reading, participants significantly improved their knowledge and understanding of extremism and youth radicalization in ways that make it more likely they would act appropriately. More than 80% of participants left the study reporting feeling “definitely” or “probably” prepared to talk with youth about online extremism and to intervene with youth they felt were in contact with extremist ideas.
This should be welcome news for overburdened parents who are worried about what their kids encountered in unprecedented amounts of time online during the COVID-19 pandemic. It doesn’t take a lot of time to make a very real difference. Parents can build their competence – and their confidence – to intervene while they are drinking their morning coffee.
A march to the Las Americas Immigrant Advocacy Center in El Paso, Texas, after the Aug 4, 2019 mass shooting at Walmart. (Photo: Michael Chow/The Republic)
Not everyone in our study learned the same amount. Women spent longer reading the guide and learned significantly more than men did, and left the study more willing to intervene on behalf of young people coming into contact with extremism. This speaks to the crucial role that mothers, grandmothers, aunts and other women mentors can play in combating extremist radicalization. There is strong precedent for mothers’ engagement: organizations run by mothers have worked to combat gun violence, Islamist extremism and drunk driving, among other problems. This evidence suggests the same type of engagement might benefit the fight against domestic violent extremism.
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This isn’t to say that parents are completely clueless. Many parents sense that something is off in their child’s behavior, but they don’t know what exactly is wrong or what to do about it. Shortly before their 21-year old son was charged with killing eight people in massage parlors this spring, his parents kicked him out of the house. Weeks before the El Paso shooting, the shooter’s mother called the police with concerns about her son’s firearm. A year before her son allegedly killed eight people at an Fed Ex facility, an Indiana mother called police with concerns that her son might commit “suicide by cop.”
None of these efforts by parents were able to stop the violent acts their sons would eventually commit. But our research suggests that an earlier intervention might help parents recognize warning signs or behavioral changes sooner, and know where to get further help.
Parents are key to early prevention
Parents can’t solve the problem of rising domestic violent extremism alone. It will take far more than individual or community preparedness and resilience to address the root causes that can lead young people down extremist pathways. We need strategies to address the producers of extremist propaganda, reduce the spread of conspiracy theories and disinformation, and tackle rising adult radicalization into a range of conspiracy, anti-government, white supremacist and male supremacist extremist movements. But in the face of what can seem like an overwhelming problem, parents are a key partner to early prevention.
For parents worried about their children’s exposure to extremist ideas online, it turns out that answering just two questions positively can make all the difference. Would you talk to a child about extremism? And can you identify the propaganda tactics used by extremists, and the strategies used to combat them?
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We now know that these are learned skills – that parents can improve in ways that may help avert radicalization in their children.
As extremist violence ticks up across the country, one thing is exceptionally clear: Families of violent actors have struggled to recognize and respond to early warning signs and know where to get the right kind of help. Getting that help to them as early as possible is a key step in combating extremist growth.
Cynthia Miller-Idriss (@milleridriss) is director of the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab at American University and author of “Hate in the Homeland: The New Global Far Right.” Susan Corke (@SusanCorke1) is director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center and co-author of “The Democracy Playbook.”
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