On average, teens spend more than 7 hours each day watching videos, reading posts, and sharing information on the internet. Cat videos can be completely harmless and fan forums for television shows and music can be great ways for young people to have fun and connect with friends. But your teen’s favorite apps and social media sites are also highly effective tools for extremist groups to broadcast messages of hate and violence. The good news is that while no parent can control everything their teen sees online or who they meet in real life, you can help them learn to recognize extremist activity for what it is and give them the tools they need to protect themselves from being influenced by hate groups.
Protecting your Home from Hate
Practicing smart internet use is a crucial part of defending your teens from hateful messaging and extremist recruiting efforts. Using strong network security settings and making sure that teens keep their personal information private are essential first steps to take. Don’t stop there. Two of the best defenses we have against people who want to create fear, division, and violence in our communities are things we carry with us every minute of every day: our hearts and our minds. By helping your teen develop empathy and critical thinking skills you can ensure they’re better equipped to handle hate speech and extremist rhetoric when they encounter it online.
Helping Teens Become Critical Thinkers
Talking to teens about how extremist groups use the internet, from video sharing to forums and social media, is the first step to helping them develop critical thinking skills they can use to protect themselves against extremist influences. Remind them that social media platforms are businesses and that they make money by keeping people clicking on the next video and scrolling on to the next post. Often, getting those clicks and that continuous scrolling involves putting ever more dramatic and shocking content in front of people’s eyes. It isn’t an accident that extremist content is recommended to teens, kids, and adults every day.
To help your teen think critically about the hate speech and extremist rhetoric they encounter online, talk to them about the who and the why behind everything they see online. Encourage them to figure out who is posting the videos they watch and the things they read. Ask what they know – and learn with them – about the groups and individuals who create the shows they watch and the stories they read. When teens know more about who is behind online content they can get a better handle on why the creator wanted to make and share it. Even your teen’s favorite YouTuber has a reason for making their videos, whether it’s as simple as providing makeup tips or as complex as teaching viewers about a cultural or historical topic.
Encourage teens to think deeply about what goals people hope to achieve by sharing things online, and help them recognize the difference between straightforward information, attempts at persuasion, and sales pitches.
Check the Facts
Finally, help your teen apply a critical mindset to the information itself. Visit fact-checking sites like FactCheck.org to follow up on things teens hear in news reports and political speeches. Critical thinking is something teens should be confident to apply on their own, but it’s important for them to see you modeling a critical mindset and sharing your approach to evaluating the who, the why, and the what involved in the media that you spend time with, too.
Teens taught to empathize with other people have an advantage in resisting the pull of extremist propaganda. Just like critical thinking, compassion, and understanding aren’t just personality traits people either have or lack. They’re skills that teens, kids, and adults can learn and practice.
One important part of developing empathy for others is to identify things that different people have in common. Reading about the different experiences that people have, whether in the form of fictional stories or non-fictional sources like biographies and documentary films, is a great way to learn about people from different backgrounds and cultures. An even better opportunity to develop empathy is to help your teen connect with people from diverse communities right where you live.
Another crucial tool for practicing empathy is imagination. Take time to talk with your teen about how it would feel to be in situations that come up in the news or in movies. Discuss the emotions that people who face those situations are likely to feel. Keep in mind that when we ask teens to imagine these things, we ask them to engage with unpleasant, negative feelings. Make sure to have these conversations at a time and place that your teen knows they’re safe, and assure them you’re there to listen, empathize, and help them process any feelings that arise.
There are more strategies for teaching and learning empathy in this article. While it focuses on younger children, the tips and topics it covers apply to people of all ages who want to get better at being compassionate and understanding toward others.
Keeping the Conversation Going
Teaching teens to identify online extremism and resist the propaganda of hate groups isn’t a one-and-done task. By staying involved in your teen’s online life and making empathy and critical thinking a part of your family’s daily life, you can help your teen stay safe in the digital world and in world outside your doorstep.