Five Ways to Combat the Online Radicalization of Youth

Please note: this post contains discussion of difficult topics and may be triggering for some readers. For immediate assistance during a crisis, call 911. You can also text CLUB to 741741 to connect with a trained Crisis Counselor with Crisis Text Line for free support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

On May 14, 2022, an 18-year-old gunman opened fire in a Buffalo, New York, grocery store, killing 10 people, all of whom were Black. In a 180-page diatribe posted online (which we are intentionally not linking to here), he detailed his journey into extremist radicalization through online sources. He has been charged with first-degree murder and is currently in custody, the communities of those killed are left grieving, and our nation is once again left reckoning with another tragedy. Since then, there have been many other mass shooting events, including Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, and a Fourth of July Parade in Highland Park, Illinois, both also carried out by young men.

For all of the good that the internet brings, including connections with communities around the globe, access to vast libraries of knowledge, and the ability to organize with others for positive change, it also means we have access to the absolute worst of humanity at our fingertips. Online radicalization is the process by which people come to adopt increasingly extreme political, social, or religious ideals and aspirations that are divisive and reject the status quo, usually accompanied by violence or violent rhetoric. Extremists use online channels such as social media, messageboards/chatrooms, and video platforms, among others, to identify and groom new recruits, spreading propaganda and encouraging distrust of everyone outside of the group. Hateful ideologies can spread more rapidly and to more people than ever before.

Young teen boy sitting in the dark with his face illuminated by a laptop screen

The gunman in Buffalo claims it took him only two years to go from first exploring message boards to this horrific act of violence. According to Shannon Foley Martinez, a former extremist who now mentors those trying to leave supremacist groups, “When I go and talk to middle and high school and university students and I ask them who has seen racist or anti-Semitic comments or content online, 100% of the hands go up.”

Like it or not, young people today will be exposed to hateful rhetoric online. It only takes wading into one wrong comment section on TikTok or replies to a Tweet to be bombarded with racist and other discriminatory views, and in two or three clicks they can find themselves on the kind of unmoderated message boards that served as inspiration here. Parents and educators are often surprised at how easily and quickly online radicalization can happen, particularly those who aren’t familiar with the new online landscape.

As youth development professionals who work with tweens and teens, we have the opportunity to combat online radicalization. When we know the kind of warning signs that can lead youth into extremism, we can counter-program to prevent it from happening in the first place. Here are five ways to combat online radicalization in youth:

Intentionally build community so youth don’t feel alone.

Feeling disconnected from those around them and thinking there is nobody who understands them can lead teens to seek out community online. This is not in and of itself a problem, but when paired with negative feelings about their life circumstances or the world around them, it can have them seeking answers as to why, and bad actors online are all too ready to give them false answers. Being intentional about building a sense of belonging and supportive relationships with both peers and adults afterschool gives teens meaningful connections and trusted people to go to when they are feeling out of sorts.

BGCA has training that can teach staff these practices, including the Youth Work Methods sessions Building Community and Ask-Listen-Encourage. These can be facilitated as live sessions or self-guided through Spillett Leadership University. Learn more in the Youth Development Catalog of Learning at BGCA.net/Training.

Teach youth how to identify disinformation online.

The internet is overflowing with disinformation and hateful speech. Unfortunately many sources of these disguise themselves as legitimate news sites, or individuals claim they have expertise that they do not, and it can be difficult to identify who is credible and who isn’t. Intentional education on these topics is vital to ensuring youth stay safe online. BGCA has activities on MyFuture that can help, including Hate Speech in the Online Safety badge, Fact Check in the Digital Citizenship badge, and Credibility Assessment in the Detective badge. Consider running these activities as part of your in-person programming, leaving plenty of time to discuss what teens have experienced on the internet and learned from these exercises.

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Encourage discussion in which youth share their personal experiences.

Hearing the experiences and stories of others can help build empathy, and empathy is a decisive antidote to hate. Incorporating programming that gives ample opportunity for sharing and discussion will help teens understand that there are many ways to see the world and that issues they may think are binary are actually incredibly complex. BGCA programming that can support this kind of dialogue include Passport to Manhood, SMART Girls, SMART Moves: Emotional Wellness, and Lyricism 101.

Introduce youth to advocacy so they can be empowered to create positive change.

Teens have a natural desire to challenge systems and processes. It’s part of their development from children into young adults and the capacity for higher level critical thinking skills. They also have strong senses of justice and injustice, which is why it can be tempting to listen to extremists who claim they and only they have the “right” answers in the face of feelings of powerlessness. Teaching youth about the power of their voice and how they can advocate for themselves and others can give them the tools to act, but do so for good. The Youth for Change Social Justice Roadmap is a step-by-step guide for advocacy in teens’ local community.

Provide youth who may be at risk for online radicalization a positive and supportive mentor.

All youth can benefit from a mentoring relationship, but those who are at a higher risk for online radicalization will particularly benefit from an ongoing relationship with a trusted adult who can give them support and steer them in the right direction. Warning signs for youth who may be at higher risk include changes in behavior; changing their circle of friends; isolating themselves from others; increased anger; increased time spent online accompanied with secretiveness; using negative or hateful terms to speak about others, particularly those in marginalized communities; use of new and seemingly scripted political terms or arguments, and an inability or unwillingness to discuss their views; and writing or creating artwork promoting violent extremist messages, among others. You can learn more about recruiting mentors and establishing guidelines for your mentoring volunteers on BGCA.net.

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Your Club should have policies in place on how to report concerns about youth and how those reports should be escalated if necessary, including complying with any local or state law. Learn more about how to build Safety policies at BGCA.net/ChildSafety and connect with a member of the Child Safety Club Services team for individual guidance.

Learn more about other ways social media is harming youth in “Social Media’s Impact on Young Women: Understanding the Headlines” here on the ClubX Blog.

If you find yourself feeling overwhelmed by the current state of the world or fearful about what the future holds, text “Club” to 741741 for immediate, confidential, 24 hour support from trained crisis counselors from our friends at Crisis Text Line


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