We can’t control guns and the internet. But we can monitor children for signs of extremism

We still don’t know all the facts about why an 18-year-old white man committed a horrific hate crime at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York last Saturday. What seems indisputable, however, is that his violent act has fueled racist and xenophobic misinformation online.

As I discussed the shooting with my husband, who is an immigrant, a person of color, a fellow psychiatrist, and the bravest man I know, he said with uncharacteristic sensitivity: “I’m scared.” By grappling with our fear and anger, we began a heated discussion about what should and can be done about digital extremism in a society that has become tragically passive in letting people of color fear for their lives on a daily basis.

In public health, primary prevention solutions are considered the most effective for preventing disease because they remove the source of the hazard so no one is exposed. But what do you do when the disease is white supremacy woven into the fabric of a nation?

Primary prevention requires government mobilization and national policy. Writer Eileen Rivers, for example, points to the need for national education reform that addresses America’s racist and violent past. But if theories of white supremacy become increasingly prevalent within government, primary prevention measures seem infuriatingly impossible. (Though as I write this, Congress has passed a bill to combat domestic terrorism.)

[W]When disease white supremacy touches the frame of a nation, hat do you do?

We can try to crack down on extremist content online, but by removing one problematic forum like beheading Hydra, two new ones are created in its place. Case in point: TikTok is the latest platform to get caught up in the never-ending pro-mom-promoting-anorexia problem.

Then there are gun control measures, but again, lack of bipartisan support keeps this amendment from running over and over again.

We urge individuals to confront online extremism. Because the majority of white supremacist hate crimes are young, white men, the people who can make the most difference are teachers, mental health professionals, and especially parents. As a child psychiatrist and researcher in problematic digital media use, I (myself included!) have some advice on what we can do better:

*Ask what your child/patient/student is doing online. Let me be clear: The Internet does not make someone racist or violent. But the ways in which social media platforms facilitate the recruitment of terrorist groups is well established. Impeachment groups use the Internet to attract new recruits with support and camaraderie, while instilling moral outrage, feeding them misinformation, and convincing them that their lives are in danger if they don’t stick to their cause. (This is known as a fatality indicator.) A young person’s attachment to a forum or website should, at the very least, prompt further inquiry.

*Watch closely for behavioral changes, especially now. As with the Internet, pandemics do not cause violence or racism, but they can create an environment in which teenagers with racist views become radicalized. Troubled youth are particularly easy targets for online extremist groups, and the COVID-19 pandemic has created a mass of troubled youth. Coping with sudden, dramatic changes in their daily lives, 2020’s teenagers have flocked to one remaining source of consistent connectivity: the internet.

[A]nger is the sense that extremist groups are adept at exploiting online opportunities.

While teenagers spend more time online increasing their chances of encountering extremism, the pandemic has also reduced teens’ healthier opportunities to build a sense of identity, community, and self-esteem. No more hanging out with friends after school, soccer games, or clubs.

The media may have focused mostly on the rise in teen suicides during the pandemic, but teenage anger has also exploded. I worked in an inpatient psychiatric ward in the early days of the pandemic, and child admissions for aggression were sometimes more frequent than for depression. Unfortunately, the outrage is a sense that extremist groups are masters at exploiting online opportunities. These groups, like the Buffalo Shooter, tell young people where to direct their anger:

“The problem is not with you, but with blacks, Hispanics and immigrants. They replace you. It’s up to you to do something.”

*Watch out for sudden changes in beliefs. While adolescence is typically a stage where teens “try out” new ideologies, if a teen suddenly begins to espouse beliefs that are completely inconsistent with their preexisting worldviews, it’s time to investigate further. Los Angeles-based writer Joanna Schroeder described it well documented his experience monitors their sons’ online behavior. “The red flags started going up for us a year ago. [our kids] started asking questions that felt like they were coming directly from alt-right talking points,” he said.

*If a teen is exploring online extremism sites, be careful to keep their attention “in.” While your first instinct may be to forbid or admonish, the fastest way to lose touch with a troubled teen is to embarrass them. Extremist forums make recruits feel empowered and then try to isolate them from opposing (read: correct) views. Adults need to stay interested and invested, correct the misinformation, and stay there for the long haul. This is not to condone racist behavior, but to observe potential violence. Increase mental health support when needed and provide alternative screen-free activities that offer connection and validation. Any suspicion of violent intent should be met with an immediate mental health evaluation.

Now more than ever, it’s important that white allies do what they can to fight digital extremism. Even if our country has been slow to make systemic changes to counter white nationalism, our Black, Hispanic, and Asian neighbors deserve more from us than passivity in these turbulent times. Just diverting one young person from these forums could save black and brown lives.

Correction: An earlier version of this piece misstated Joanna Schroeder’s descriptions of her children’s online activities.

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