• Disarm Disinfo

Kids Online? Pay Attention!

This recent Twitter post caught my eye as it was going viral. The headline makes complete sense and it is terrifying.

Click here for an unrolled view of Joanna Schroeder's full thread.

According to a 2018 Pew Research survey, close to 95% of teens have a smartphone or can access one. YouTube and Instagram top the list of favorite applications. Approximately 45% say they are online "almost constantly." According to another Pew Study of Americans and video games, 92% of teenage boys have access to gaming consoles, and 41% even admit to spending too much time playing video games.

That's a lot of kids online a lot of the time.

In the Twitter thread above, Joanna Schroeder describes the slippery slope where her teenage son's thoughtless sarcastic jokes morph into racist jabs, which then too easily get normalized. Disapproving parents or female classmates are written off as "too sensitive", and the adolescents making the racist, misogynist jokes then understand themselves to be the real victims. And on it goes, one more step down a slippery slope into a world of hate and extremist thinking and "alt-right white supremacy" with each gamer exchange, YouTube comment or Instagram share.

Where does it start? Let's look at a few low-barrier entry points.

YouTube. The business model is to keep people watching longer. The more time online, the more ads, the more money for YouTube. YouTube is owned by Google, and since 2015 Google artificial intelligence has been powering YouTube's recommendation engines, serving up viewers a continuous feed of "Up next" videos, each one more enticing, engaging and sensational. With adolescent boys, videos move them closer, and deeper into the world of white supremacy. In the TED video below, Internet sociologist, Zynep Tufeki describes how YouTube recommended videos were increasingly more "hard core."

Like so much of social media, YouTube content is virtually unmonitored. A reformed white supremacist, now in his 20's describes his journey into hell by way of YouTube, Reddit and 4chan. He states, "You can go in five clicks from doing your homework to white supremacist videos."

Gaming. Participatory gaming environments are another outlet for recruiters who are looking to target influenceable young people. In a recent New York Times Opinion piece, From Fortnight to Alt-Right, Megan Condis, gamer and gaming researcher looks not only at the games but at the gaming culture surrounding them. The environment is interactive, often violent and all consuming. Lonely adolescent boys just trying to fit in are easy pickings. Anya Kamenetz on NPR story tells the story of a progressive father's nightmare when he stumbles upon Nazi literature among his teenage son's computer print outs.

It is a similar process with Instagram, Reddit and 4chan. It appears as though your child is wasting time on the internet, instead of doing homework. In fact, they have unwittingly entered an eco-system in which thinking can morph into places that to you are unimaginable. The seeds of white supremacy get planted.

What can you do?

Whether you are a parent or you have young people in your life, the best antidote is in-person interaction. Actual real-people conversation.

Pay attention. It's easy to miss. You believe your child has a moral foundation. He/she has grown up with your values of equality, compassion and sensitivity for all people. Your child appears to be on the verge of adulthood. But not so. Adolescence is time of intensive development, physically and cognitively. Kids are easily influenced, especially by powerful visual media.

What to do? Follow where your child goes on social media. Ask questions. Kids can too easily take a wrong turn and get lost. Talking can help ground them back, return them to the world of real people.

Be neutral. Inquire. Don't interrogate. Joanna Schroeder cautions parents not to shame their children. Shaming only exacerbates the feelings of victimization that hate culture is trying so hard to elicit in vulnerable adolescents. Keep the discussion open. Make room for talking about differences of opinion. Leave space for inquiry. Even though you know it's wrong, keep conversation going.

Normalize the conversation.