Mental Health Matters

Building Resilience Against Manipulative Disinformation

Supporting young people’s mental health and well-being is essential in addressing vulnerabilities to harmful disinformation.
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Illustration by Daniel Diosdado

As political and social polarization dominate the national landscape, maintaining inclusive learning environments is increasingly formidable. Young peoples’ time online and exposure to disinformation, conspiracy theories and supremacist thinking further compound the difficulties in supporting their mental health and well-being.

However, counseling psychology Ph.D. candidate Jackson Liguori and school counselor Brennan F. McIntosh recommend steps to mitigate these challenges. Incremental lessons, honest conversations and community networking can support young people’s resilience against efforts to undermine civic engagement and learning environments grounded in safety and belonging.

Practice social emotional learning.

“You can’t talk about finding things that are hateful and hurtful online if [students] can’t understand and figure out how to talk about how [they] feel about it in respect to [themselves],” says McIntosh. Widely referred to as social emotional learning (SEL), the Committee for Children defines this approach as “the process of developing the self-awareness, self-control, and interpersonal skills that are vital for school, work, and life success.”

Building social emotional learning into the norms of a classroom, McIntosh explains, looks different depending on the students’ ages. “For the younger kids, if [students] can have a daily morning meeting with [their] teacher … to be able to recognize their feelings, then you’ll also be able to transfer that over into the social media technology world.” Since older students have less time for morning meetings, McIntosh recommends working social emotional lessons into advisory periods or scheduling in-depth lessons taught by a school counselor.

The self-awareness and interpersonal skills learned through SEL are also foundational for digital literacy and civic engagement. As young people spend time online, their ability to discern fact from fiction, recognize manipulation and engage in civic discourse is essential. McIntosh recommends embedding exercises in digital literacy into the curriculum from the beginning of students’ education. This will help young people know how to be “a good digital citizen … and not just click share, share, share.”

Understand vulnerabilities to radicalization.

According to Liguori, educators can also develop vigilance against disinformation and the impact of supremacist ideologies on young people’s mental health by simply being “aware of the social dynamics of the class and the emotional status of their students.” Those who are most vulnerable to manipulation by hateful agendas, he says, often have experienced some childhood trauma. When combined with self-hatred—another key precursor to radicalization identified in Liguori’s research—these individuals are particularly vulnerable to manipulation.

Educators may recognize a behavioral change in a young person that indicates increased susceptibility to manipulation. Oftentimes, Liguori explains, these behaviors appear on two ends of the spectrum: isolating or acting out. Young people who are acting out may “feel like they have been overlooked in their own family and the only way they know how to get attention is to … draw attention to themselves by breaking the rules and getting in trouble,” he says.

Regarding deepening social disengagement, Liguori warns that young people who become increasingly isolated may be “avoiding attention because the attention they receive is generally negative.” Such behavior may indicate trauma, depression or other mental health concerns that could increase a young person’s vulnerability to extremist manipulation.

Both behaviors—isolation and acting out—are young people “asking for help in a nonverbal way,” Liguori says. Both require support that addresses the root causes of manipulation and helps young people take responsibility for harmful words or actions.

Speak to the person, not their behavior.

When addressing behavioral changes or situations in which a student has caused harm to their peer(s), educators should distinguish between the young person’s behavior and their identity.

“Pulling the student aside and giving one-on-one attention,” Liguori advises, says “to the student, ‘I see what you’re communicating, and I’m not taking the way you are communicating as who you are. I’m not identifying you as your behavior.’”

In the classroom, McIntosh says this means not calling the behavior out explicitly but rather reinforcing the students’ social emotional learning. “Really try to dig into how it would feel if it happened to [that student]. It’s harder to relate when you don’t have any idea what it would feel like,” she says.

These empathetic prompts, Liguori adds, give “the student a place where they can feel that they are being paid attention to in a caring way and not to punish them.”

Explore options for those harmed.

“Part of trauma,” Liguori explains, “is feeling like you’ve had your agency taken away from you.” Therefore, it’s imperative that responses are compassionate and directly informed by the needs of those harmed without imposing forgiveness.

This means providing young people with multiple avenues for reporting an incident. Schools should strive to have at least “one person that [each student] feels comfortable going to, to talk about what happened … even if it’s not the teacher,” says McIntosh. “If they can get to an adult, whether you’re 5 or 18, we can help solve [the issue].”

However, speaking in person with an educator, school counselor or administrator can sometimes be intimidating, emotionally taxing or retraumatizing. Therefore, using platforms or processes that allow young people to submit anonymous reports can provide the opportunity to make educators aware of an incident.

Once a trusted adult has been made aware of an incident and if the targeted individual has been identified, then a plan of action that centers the mental health and well-being of those harmed can be outlined. “Having a set of possibilities for addressing what has happened…and having the person who has been traumatized in charge of how they want to address it is crucial,” says Liguori. Options could be as simple as talking to a school counselor and filing an official report or as extensive as helping a student change their class schedule to restore their sense of physical safety.

Compassion fatigue is real.

“You have to take time for yourself,” says McIntosh. “I really like having a check-in buddy at school that [I] can talk to about things. If [educators] have that person…who understands the students, who knows what happened or maybe saw what happened, [you can] check in on each other and talk through your thoughts and feelings.”

In addition to the therapeutic aspect of talking through difficult situations and building consensus, these conversations can also help educators determine what further resources and support they need. Oftentimes combating compassion fatigue comes down to “advocating for yourself and your students,” McIntosh explains, “knowing what to ask for, [knowing] it’s OK to ask for things.”

Engage the broader community.

In responding to harmful incidents and helping young people build resilience through mental health care and awareness, educators should connect with broader networks of trusted adults. “Teachers who are dealing with this type of … prevention,” Liguori advises, “need some kind of explicit support that’s designed for the reactions that one has to this kind of intervention because it can be painful, stressful and taxing.”

Not only can these broader networks help dissipate the responsibility of responding to harmful situations, but various trusted adults in young people’s lives present unique opportunities to help them build resilience and to intervene if the need arises. Coaches, youth mentors, mental health practitioners, religious leaders and others all offer an alternative conduit outside of school and the home for resilience-building. Similarly, these individuals also offer an alternative support network for individuals or communities who may have been harmed by disinformation or supremacist ideologies.

Tapping into these local networks offers young people the opportunity to interact with diverse individuals, build empathy for differing lived experiences, and engage more broadly with the civic life of their community. When educators and broader circles of trusted adults are equipped with the tools to help young people build resilience against manipulation, social emotional learning is reinforced, isolation and moral disengagement are constructively challenged, and the foundations for an inclusive and just society are strengthened.