MAGAZINE FEATURE

Prevention and Resilience: Supporting Young People Through Polarizing Times

During this time of political and social turmoil, build networks of trusted adults to help young people understand, contextualize and counter manipulative and harmful information.
Illustrations by Irina Perju

SINCE THE ONSET of the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers looking at extremism have warned of the proliferation of hateful and manipulative content online and young people’s increased vulnerabilities to such harmful narratives. Despite such warnings, the Center for Countering Digital Hate found that large tech companies failed to remove 84% of antisemitic posts and 89% of anti-Muslim posts. Alongside the proliferation of hate online, antisemitic incidents increased 34% from 2020 to 2021. Similarly, between March 2020 and March 2022, Stop AAPI Hate collected nearly 11,500 reports of incidents targeting Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, with “AAPI individuals who are also female, [nonbinary], or LGBTQIA+ [experiencing] hate incidents that target them for their multiple identities.”

Online hate speech and offline harm combined with a 250% escalation in educational gag order bills aimed at restricting educators’ agency to discuss race, gender, sexual orientation and accurate U.S. history have severely impacted schools and communities across the nation. Fueled by a vocal minority of people with discriminatory and oppressive aims, such legislative efforts threaten educators’ ability to provide students with an equitable and inclusive education that can stem the flow of exploitative disinformation. Thus, initiatives to mitigate harm and ensure all young people can access the support they need must be network-based, equipping a coalition of caregivers and community members with the tools to work in conjunction with educators to build resilience against harmful narratives.

Supporting Educators and Students to Prevent Extremism

As trusted figures in young people’s lives, educators are a line of defense against exploitative narratives. It’s therefore essential for educators to feel equipped to counter threats to inclusive schools and communities. As director of the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab, or PERIL, Cynthia Miller-Idriss, Ph.D., explains, “Educators are trained to recognize and report signs of physical harm and abuse among their students—but we need to update this training to include the online worlds where young people spend so much of their time.”

To support educators in that endeavor, PERIL has partnered with the Southern Poverty Law Center to develop a growing suite of evidence-based resources to challenge and ultimately prevent the radicalization of young people to extremism. “Teachers need to be equipped to recognize signs of exposure to harmful online content as well as online harassment and abuse,” says Miller-Idriss. “And they also need strategies to help young people build resilience against harmful content and be equipped to reject it when they do encounter it.”

The PERIL supplemental resource specifically for educators offers information to do just that. With notes about harmful rhetoric and narratives to be aware of, and examples of ways to maintain inclusive learning environments, the resource aims to support educators in their efforts to fortify students against hateful content and manipulation online.

To bolster resilience against extremism and develop knowledge to identify and confront harmful ideologies before they take root, resources across networks of trusted adults—from parents and caregivers to coaches, guidance counselors and religious leaders—can help form a safety net of support.

While not all young people who encounter hateful material will become radicalized, harmful rhetoric can be repeated in classrooms, even without intent to cause harm. If such beliefs make it into the classroom, it’s important for teachers to confront the harmful or discriminatory language directly, but without ridicule or shame. Following up with moments of individual learning can help educators better understand where such views stem from, thus better informing an effective approach.

Encouraging dialogue between peers and developing classroom guidelines to ensure inclusive and honest conversations can help build a safe and respectful environment for all students. As Pasha Dashtgard, Ph.D., PERIL director of research, explains, “When a student says something hateful or dehumanizing in a classroom, one important lesson that the whole class can learn from such an incident is solidarity. The targeted student(s), along with those who witnessed the incident firsthand, can come together and use that teachable moment to affirm what values they hold as a group, and identify which of those values have just been violated.”

Educators can also engage with current events and equip students with the tools to recognize and stem the flow of misinformation and disinformation through digital literacy trainings. Such conversations can increase students’ feelings of agency and develop a foundation for future investment and participation in a thriving and diverse democracy.

As early facilitators of inclusive democracy, educators need to feel sustained and supported. Building a community of common values and approaches within a school system can connect educators to the resources they need, provide space for mutual support and shared experiences, and develop trust with school administrators. As political polarization deepens and inclusive education remains a target of the far right, curating such spaces among educators is crucial.

Illustration of people gathering at a basketball court.

Building Networks of Care Outside Schools

Helping protect young people and communities from manipulation both on and offline goes beyond equipping educators with the tools they need in classroom settings. To bolster resilience against extremism and develop knowledge to identify and confront harmful ideologies before they take root, resources across networks of trusted adults—from parents and caregivers to coaches, guidance counselors and religious leaders—can help form a safety net of support. First published in June 2020, PERIL and SPLC’s flagship Parents & Caregiver’s Guide to Online Radicalization provides information on warning signs and drivers of extremism. It also gives parents tools to engage young people and helps adults feel empowered to act.

While staples of adolescence, such as the desire for friendship, a sense of belonging, and teenage rebellion, may seem innocuous, they can also augment young people’s vulnerabilities to manipulative content. As the COVID-19 pandemic deepened in March 2020, nearly 93% of households with young people in the U.S. reported moving to some form of distance learning. As many parents and caregivers worked to navigate this new landscape, young people were left with unprecedented amounts of unsupervised time online, considerably increasing the likelihood of encountering extremist material. Compounding concerns about time spent online, many young people continue to experience feelings of despair and uncertainty stemming from crises like COVID-19 and climate change. These societal upheavals leave people grasping for simplistic answers to complex issues, fueling the spread of conspiracy theories.

Voids in support and accurate information have too often been exploited by extremists, thus contributing to further political and social polarization. In an April 2022 poll, SPLC found that the bigoted so-called “great replacement”—the false conspiracy that liberals are deliberately driving demographic change in the U.S. to replace white citizens—is believed to some extent by nearly 7 out of 10 self-identified Republicans. As this perceived attack on the white population would necessitate control over people’s reproductive functions, the “great replacement” conspiracy theory has close ties to anti-LGBTQ+ bigotry and misogynistic control over the bodies of people who can become pregnant.

With such beliefs gaining traction among some communities, it’s imperative that inoculating young people far upstream of their potential exposure to extremist material becomes a whole-of-society duty. “One key strategy for disrupting the radicalization process in youth,” notes Dashtgard, “is to take a ‘no wrong door’ approach—to borrow a phrase from trauma-informed care. Kids should feel like any trusted adult in their life that they open up to can help them with this problem. Sometimes kids and adolescents don’t want to open up to their parents or their primary caregivers; sometimes it’s a friend’s dad, or their favorite staff member at their afterschool program, or their soccer coach.”

Thus, across the coming months and years, PERIL, in collaboration with SPLC, will continue to refine existing materials and publish further evidence-based resources for educators and guidance counselors, mental health professionals, as well as coaches, youth mentors and other trusted adults. Each of these communities of professionals or volunteers has a unique lens into young people’s lives and holds the capacity to build relationships that offer diverse perspectives.

As coaches, mentors and youth group leaders often interact with young people outside of classrooms, they are well-positioned to help foster positive identity formation in a more casual atmosphere. Imbuing young people with a sense of collaboration can seed such values across various facets of their lives. These individuals have a particular capacity to advocate for policy initiatives that center inclusion and commit to standards of behavior. And they also offer opportunities for networked solutions in case  individuals in the young person’s life are espousing harmful and manipulative viewpoints.

Mental health practitioners represent a conduit for inoculating young people against harmful narratives and challenging any such burgeoning belief systems while also protecting youth who are targeted by incidents of bias and bigotry. As these views can coincide with other traumas and situations that create vulnerabilities, counselors might need to first identify and confront extremist beliefs to address underlying drivers. Exploring parallel approaches for pathologies that intersect with some of the patient’s extremist attitudes may be helpful in developing effective treatment.

Approach and Values

The resiliency and prevention resources will provide educators, caregivers and all trusted adults in young people’s lives with the ability to recognize exposure to harmful content and build resistance to it. However, in a rapidly changing political climate and social and economic conditions, making such resources both dynamic and effective can be challenging. Therefore, to be actionable, these guides strive to always center the needs of targeted individuals, focus on the local community level and take non-carceral approaches.

Similar to ineffectual classroom approaches that shame students who have voiced hateful beliefs, incarceration contributes to feelings of anger and perpetuates cyclical violence. Rather, PERIL and SPLC resources aim to ground prevention efforts in the strength and cohesion of communities. Given the importance of localized contexts and the highly individualized nature of radicalization, communities of caregivers, educators and trusted adults are key to resilience against online and offline manipulation.

To stay true to these values and reduce harms as ethically and effectively as possible, our resources are tested and refined. Miller-Idriss explains that in an impact study of 755 adults, “Our research showed that it only takes seven minutes of reading our guide for parents and caregivers to be better informed about red flags and warning signs related to online radicalization, to feel more confident about intervening if a child has been exposed to harmful content, and to know how to get more help.” Further, every extra minute spent reading the guide helped, too. The longer participants spent reading the guide, the more confident they felt in their ability to recognize extremist rhetoric and intercede. In fact, 87% of respondents reported feeling either satisfied or extremely satisfied with the guide overall.

As the country heads into a contentious midterm election and eyes the 2024 presidential election, polarization catalyzed by manipulative sources will continue to impact people’s lives. Such a divisive landscape can be overwhelming, but as Miller-Idriss notes, “It’s really important to know that it doesn’t have to take an entire online workshop or training to be better equipped to protect your kids from online harms—you can do it while you’re drinking your cup of morning coffee.”

While it is inevitable that some of the incendiary rhetoric of this landscape will manifest in classrooms, it’s important to harness the strength of community in response. Resources like the ones described will empower broad coalitions of trusted adults to act on behalf of, and with, young people targeted by manipulative and harmful information. Such community-based efforts, in partnership with schools and educators, will help cultivate a generation of empathetic and resilient young people.

Resources

Preventing Youth Radicalization: Building Resilient, Inclusive Communities

The resources on this page from SPLC and the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab (PERIL) are intended to provide strategies to address the threat of extremism through early prevention and non-carceral solutions.

Building and Confronting Risks: A Parents & Caregivers Guide to Online Youth Radicalization

This guide is intended for parents, caregivers and educators, and provides tangible steps to counter the threat of online radicalization, including information on new risks, how to recognize warning signs, and how to get help and engage a radicalized child or young adult.

Learning the Landscape of Digital Literacy

This framework provides digital literacy training for educators to stem the flow of misinformation and help young people participate meaningfully in online communities, interpret the changing digital landscape, and unlock the power of the internet for good.

Combatting Online Youth Radicalization

Learning for Justice and cohosts from SPLC’s Intelligence Project and American University’s Polarization and Extremism Research Innovation Lab (PERIL) present a webinar on combating the radicalization of young people online.

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