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How To Talk To Kids About Radicalization And The Signs Of It

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(Tracy J. Lee for NPR)
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I (Barrie Hardymon) am the parent of two kids — 8 and 11 — and there's something truly terrifying that creeps into my consciousness every time I see another tragedy like the kind of racist shootings we've seen in recent days and years. Highland Park, Buffalo, Christchurch, El Paso. The criminal is almost ALWAYS — a young, white man.

I am raising two young, white, men.

It's a horror to think that your kid could be a victim. It's a whole different kind of fear, to think that your kid could be ... I hardly want to write it down ... a perpetrator. A racist. A sexist. A bigot. Someone who could even be susceptible to those ideas.

Because we know where a lot of these ideas come from — they are part of the online world that our kids frequent. I'm not even talking about the places that openly identify themselves as homes for white supremacy: I'm talking about Roblox, YouTube, all the gaming platforms and social media.

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When it comes to that online world, kids are incredibly facile with it. There's almost no way to get ahead of it.

It's hard not to panic.

I wasn't sure if the way that I was talking about it with MY kids — especially when it comes to the dangers online — was the right way.

So I called an expert. Christine Saxman talks to parents and teachers about this stuff all the time. She's been doing racial and social justice facilitation for about twenty years.

And the first thing I have to communicate to you is ... don't panic! What I found was surprisingly empowering.

Here are the top tips that Saxman gave me. And I have to say, things are already a lot calmer in my house. (In just this one respect: Life Kit, I look forward to your episode on keeping kids from making "deez nuts" jokes in polite company.)

Learn the signs of radicalization

It's really important to know when your kid might be falling down the rabbit hole. What are the signs you should be aware of? Saxman told me to really keep an eye out for the kinds of jokes your kids are reacting to and making. Be particularly aware if they are beginning to engage with humor that dehumanizes others, in particular gay, transphobic and sexist jokes. Disguised as humor, it gives people with racist agendas plausible deniability, because it's "just" a joke.

"Joking around LGBT issues," Saxman says, "... is a very common entry point for many different conspiracy theories. So the jokes get worse and worse, and then the content gets worse and worse ... almost like a Venn diagram, if you can imagine — the ways in which they can use each of these different levers to pull you in. Because once they've normalized this kind of dialog that it's okay to dehumanize gay people, it's okay to dehumanize women, that we believe that there's this Jewish cabal running things, that's the stepping stone to go deeper and deeper."

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She also recommended having some idea of the shape this kind of seduction can take. Western States Center has a comprehensive toolkit that can help you identify the different stages radicalization can take, like, sharing jokes and memes to be "edgy," or even asserting conspiratorial beliefs in daily life.

Help your kids understand their own power

They have to learn to ask the right questions, not just of the content they see, but of their friends. What helps, especially with older children, is encouraging them to recognize and develop their own agency.

Saxman suggests supportive phrases like, "I believe you're a critical thinker." Or "I know you like to ask questions." Then, she says, you're "co-creating and learning about things together."

Building up my older son's belief in his own judgment has been a game changer for me — and he's been much more open about the iffy things he runs into on the web. Balancing trust with a healthy dose of skepticism is hard, but it has paid off in the short time I've been emphasizing it, and we've been talking a lot more.

Don't overreact! You need to keep that relationship open

I ... am reactive. I love to react. But Saxman made the point that when you blow up in fear about something, teenagers are less likely to seek you out when they really need you. So I've started training myself to chill out and bring up issues from a place of curiosity rather than fear. There's that balance again —it's really scary out there, but I don't want to make the kids think they're up against something that's impossible to overcome.

As far as expressing my own fears about how they might get sucked in, I found that watching the movie The Social Dilemma with them was really helpful. It's not a perfect film (it is a tech-bro apology tour at its heart), but it explains how white boys in particular are targeted by algorithms, and emphasizes the importance of making their own choices about what to watch on Instagram and YouTube, not just taking the video that is served up to them next.

Communicate frequently with other parents

This can be awkward. But you have to do it! Not every family has the same rules around screens and online content, especially those with multiple ages in the house. For instance, if your kid has a friend with unfettered YouTube access, and they're watching it every time they go over to their buddy's house, it's important for you to know that, and to know how the parents are communicating about it.

It might mean you have to reconcile different views about what's appropriate. But these are important conversations, Saxman says, so be open to learning more about why one parent's rules may differ from another, "Just be curious," she says and suggests that you ask questions about how they came to that decision, and what it means for their own relationship with their child.

The more you talk about what other parents are seeing and talking about in their own house, the more you know about what your own kid is exposed to — and what they are reading, watching and playing. (And you'll get good tips if you can build those relationships! I learned about The Social Dilemma as a teaching tool from another parent.)

Most of all, BE CURIOUS

Hey kids – What are you doing on TikTok? What's good? What's funny? Here's someone I like! Oh, you think I'm old? OK, well who do *you* like? Who's your favorite YouTuber? What kind of stuff do you see? What makes you laugh? Normalize your interest in their online life. Play Mario Kart! Make them build you a house in Minecraft. Curiosity builds relationships.

I'll leave you with this. When I asked Saxman if there was anything in her work that gave her hope, here's what she said: "I'm really hopeful about young people. I feel the ways in which they have weathered COVID. They have weathered all of this. They do self-monitor. They monitor each other. I believe in them. And so I want to create a container to continue to support that. And that's what I want to ask from other adults."

One Last Thing ...

I want to emphasize that this episode is mostly about prevention, and that all of this means nothing if you aren't raising kids who are fluent in the language of racism and antiracism.

Here are a few resources

About this story
  • The audio portion of this episode was produced by Michelle Aslam. We'd love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org.

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