MONTGOMERY, Ala. — In the midst of a pandemic and nationwide protests against racial injustice, American University’s Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab (PERIL) and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) today released a guide to help parents and caregivers understand how extremists are exploiting this time of unrest by targeting children and young adults with propaganda.
The guide — Building Resilience & Confronting Risk in the COVID-19 Era — is designed for caregivers, parents, educators and others who are on the front lines of recognizing and responding to radicalization in the COVID-19 era. Isolation and increased time online during the pandemic creates a perfect storm for young people to explore extremist spaces and content online. More than 70 million children and young adults, for example, are now learning primarily at home or entering a summer vacation with no camps, employment or other structured activities.
“We know that extremist groups thrive in situations like these by exploiting legitimate fears and grievances while preying on vulnerable children and adolescents,” said SPLC President and Chief Executive Officer Margaret Huang. “Just like we saw during the anti-lockdown protests, extremists are seeking to co-opt protests against systemic racism in ways that heighten the risks of violence and online radicalization. Our hope is that this guide will provide families and caregivers a tool to recognize and confront risks posed by far-right extremists in online spaces.”
Parents and caregivers must be prepared to explain to young people that the answers they seek will not be found in these online sites.
“The tremendous insecurity brought on by crises can make the kinds of simplistic solutions offered by far-right extremists more appealing,” said PERIL Director and Professor Cynthia Miller-Idriss. “For extremists, this is an ideal time to exploit youth grievances about their lack of agency, their families’ economic distress, and their intense sense of disorientation, confusion, fear and anxiety. In the absence of their usual social support systems and networks of trusted adults and peers, youths become targets for the far-right, who promise easy answers about who they can blame for their plight.”
The guide provides parents and caregivers with tangible steps to counter the threat, as well as providing the following information and tips:
What online radicalization is and why parents and caregivers should care;
- New risks of online radicalization during the COVID-19 crisis;
- How to recognize the warning signs;
- Understanding the drivers of online radicalization;
- How to get help and engage a radicalized child or young adult;
- How to identify bias and prejudice and how to respond to hate.
“Even in normal times, young people are seeking answers to simple, but big questions like, ‘Who am I?’ ‘Why is this happening?’ ‘Does anyone care?,’” said T. Elijah Hawkes, a public high school principal in Vermont. “The COVID-19 crisis and our troubled times make the normal vulnerabilities of growing up feel even more acute. Young people are more isolated, experiencing loss, and looking for answers. This guide shows how extremists can seize this moment to draw young people into dangerous identities and beliefs. It helps us know what to look for, provides resources, and gives suggestions on how to intervene. I’ll be sharing it with the parents, teachers and students I work with.”