The internet offers virtual neighborhoods to satisfy any interest. For kids and teens, these online neighborhoods can be dangerous. The Southern Poverty Law Center estimates that there are 940 known hate groups operating in the United States. Fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic, immigration fears, an increasingly global economy, troubled race relations, and extremely divisive politics, the number of hate groups is more than a 55% increase since 2000. When one considers that the Internet is worldwide, the potential for online hate is staggering. Hate groups and cults have a powerful recruitment tool with the internet. Too many of our mass shooters have been radicalized online. Our kids are not only viewing manipulative recruiting information, but they are also being viewed for vulnerabilities. Could your teen be at risk?
In 2015, 21-year-old Dylann Roof walked into a Charleston church and shot and killed nine innocent people. Like Isla Vista shooter Elliot Rodger, Dylann had posted a hateful online manifesto before his murderous rampage detailing his violent and racist beliefs. Along with photos of him standing on and burning an American Flag and aiming his gun, his manifesto titled “an explanation” details his “disdain” against blacks, Jews, Hispanics, and patriotism.
“I have no choice. I am not in the position to, alone, go into the ghetto and fight. I chose Charleston because it is the most historic city in my state, and at one time had the highest ratio of blacks to whites in the country. We have no skinheads, no real KKK, no one doing anything but talking on the internet. Well someone has to have the bravery to take it to the real world, and I guess that has to be me.”
It turns out that his hate crime wasn’t a split-second decision. The shooter had spent months online in white supremacy forums escalating into hate and violence. He didn’t have to look far online for hate. No longer do hate groups and cults have to rely on interpersonal contact, newsletters, and rallies for recruitment. New members can be recruited and groomed slowly and deceptively from the safety of their bedrooms. Websites and social media publicity are easy to design and inexpensive, allowing big reach and total control over the content. Internet platforms are the perfect tool for grooming, behavioral manipulation, and coercive thought control. By the time a teen is ready to pack their suitcase to join the group, they have been expertly brainwashed over months to adopt a radicalized web of beliefs.
We Can Help
Filter and block access to inappropriate sites for younger teens with tools recommended in our GKIS Screen Safety Toolkit.
Provide emotional safety and educationally enriched and diverse experiences to decrease susceptibility due to fear, lack of experience, and overly simplistic thinking.
Teach your kids how to recognize signs of online grooming and brainwashing using our Cybersecurity Red Flags supplement.
Stay engaged and aware of your kids’ off- and online activity and build assertiveness and reasoning skills with increasing challenges over time. Encourage your kids to think for themselves and research opposing positions
The Red Flag Strategies of Hate Groups and Cults
Sensational Messaging Based on Deception and False Facts to Trigger Intrigue, Suspicion, and Paranoia (e.g., “Did you know that Martin Luther King Jr. was not a legitimate reverend?”)
Attempts to Isolate the Subject by Exploiting Emotional Vulnerabilities and Destabilizing Friend and Family Support
Isolation starts with probes that assess susceptibility (e.g., “Where is your computer?” “Are you alone?”) and attempts to validate emotion and join (“I know what that feels like.” “You can trust me.”). Once the victim shows interest and openness, the recruiter challenges their belief system and attacks the credibility of family and friends. If the recruiter can tap into fear and insecurity, they can then start to target blame (e.g., “Do your parents overlook and dismiss you?” “Do you feel lonely and misunderstood?” “If they loved you, they would not control you like they do.”).
The Promise of a Cure for Emotional Pain (promising sanctuary, secret intimacy, romantic unconditional love, belonging to a community, wealth, fame, power over others, escape, a spiritual “answer,” and protection)
Intense unrelenting pressure to build trust and a sense of belonging
Online blogs are highly effective to nurture belief change with long narratives dispersed overtime. Cyber communities bond with a sense of special belonging, shared values and practices, and a fierce sense of elitism and pride. The goal is to tempt subjects into slowly sacrificing free will and becoming increasingly reliant on the group to do their thinking for them. Members are often encouraged to troll others in support of their radicalized beliefs.
Marketing Techniques and Products Targeting Teens
Inducing guilt by providing offers of friendship and gifts to develop a sense of reciprocity right from the beginning leaves subjects feeling that they owe the recruiter and must give back. Hyped meetings, branding, and merchandising support the power and exclusivity of the group (e.g., slogans, symbols, colors, mascots, music, video games, and customized slang).
Tests of Loyalty and Intimidation to Creare Blind Obedience (e.g., “We have direct authority from a divine power.”)
Invitations and Offers for Wealth and Travel
Who is susceptible?
If you are thinking that only older teens are susceptible to online recruitment, think again. Many hate group websites include a kids’ page with coloring pages, puzzles, animated mascots, videos, and downloadable music and video games (sometimes with racially intolerant content like torturing or hunting the target populations of their hate) for early grooming. Like with all big brands, the sooner they rope in a customer, the more influence they’ll have and the more profit they’ll make.
Perhaps you’re thinking government surveillance and regulation will keep your family safe? Unfortunately, regulation to block hateful cyber conduct is only in its infancy. With America’s protection of civil liberties, it’s left to parents to police child access to online content. Even with parent monitoring, it’s difficult to keep up. Our digital natives actively seek causes to get behind in their healthy quest for individual identity, even if it means joining somebody else’s civil war. Rolling Stone Magazine wrote of three Muslim teens who were taken into custody at the airport on their way to join ISIS after a long period of online grooming, all without their parents’ awareness. It’s impossible to know how many young people have been radicalized through Internet content, and those prosecuted are protected by sealed records due to minor status.
With the developmentally healthy teen spirit of idealism, omnipotence, and egocentrism, our youth will always be at the forefront of the fight for social justice. Teens seek simple answers in a confusingly nuanced world. It’s important not to dismiss their powerful need for spiritual fulfillment, meaning, and a sense of belonging. Just as too much parental pressure for academic and athletic perfection can backfire and lead teens to seek promises of solace, so can a lack of authority or structure.
When I was young, I was shy and eager to please. As a tween, sometimes my dad would say sensational (and even offensive) comments to provoke me into an argument. We would then engage in heated debates littered with respectful confrontation and presentation of evidence. It wasn’t until I was much older when I realized that he was teaching me assertiveness in the face of authority. Although he required obedience, he made it clear that blind obedience was never acceptable and provided me a safe place to experiment with critical thinking and speak up with questions and complaints. Most importantly, he taught me that there is no shame in standing up for what’s right and in risking failure. That is the kind of loving, fun, and safe training ground every child needs to build resilience. Love and safety build resilience, not oppression and long lectures.
Enrich your connection with your kids today while keeping them Internet safe by checking out our Social Media Readiness Training Course for tweens and teens. It offers the factual information kids need to learn about the Internet before they wander into dangerous virtual neighborhoods. It’s like driver’s training but for the internet!
I’m the mom psychologist who will help you GetYourKidsInternetSafe.
Onward to More Awesome Parenting,
Tracy S. Bennett, Ph.D.
Mom, Clinical Psychologist, CSUCI Adjunct Faculty