Talking to kids about video gaming, media and news, and what they’re learning in school can help you spot warning signs early and create a rewarding and protective environment.
Canadian Anti-Hate Network
People who are trying to recruit and groom youth into white supremacy and other hate movements often prey on young people’s feelings of alienation and distance from their real-life social circles and support systems. Sometimes just teenagers themselves, they encourage young people’s antagonism and distrust of supportive adults, and present themselves as the only ones who truly understand and care about the young person.
The following conversations can help to build trust and rapport, as well as help you get an idea of whether, and to what extent, a young person is being exposed to, influenced by, and engaging with white supremacist and other hate ideologies.
Online gaming has been found to have numerous social, emotional, and educational benefits — especially during the isolation of the pandemic lockdowns. A young person having an active and social gaming life is by no means a red flag, and in many cases can actually be an adaptive coping mechanism for a destabilizing, distressful, and lonely time.
However, bad actors of all kinds have exploited the increased time young people are spending online, including in gaming spaces, to cause them harm. Online gaming, specifically, has long had a problem with toxicity, extreme aggression, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, and racism. GamerGate, a year-long campaign of coordinated harassment against women in the gaming industry, was in many ways a precedent for the rise of the alt-right.
- Ask who they play with, where those people live, how old they are, and any other details they may know that can help you determine if there are concerns.
- Ask what they like about the people they play with, and about how they make them feel. What do they talk about when they play together?
- Ask if anyone they game with ever makes them feel scared or badly about themselves, or any aspect of their life.
- Ask if you can play together sometime, so you can get a sense of what their experience is like.
- Ask if they ever watch other people play video games, and which sites they use.
Asking about gaming is a great way to demonstrate to a young person in your life that you like hearing about the things they are interested in, while also gaining important information about the role – positive or negative – that this hobby plays in their life.
Asking questions about the mechanics and strategies of the game can help the conversation feel less like an interrogation about their online habits. Think about how good it feels when someone asks you to talk about your hobbies!
Pay attention if they mention streaming sites like Trovo and DLive — these are spaces with low content moderation that have made a comfortable home for hate-promoting streamers. Twitch also has moderation issues, but it’s the most widely used platform and is a safer place for kids to watch streamers play video games.
This Vent Diagram shows the tension between different, seemingly conflicting, realities about online gaming. While gaming can be beneficial, it remains a space where youth are frequently exposed to hateful content.
Conversations about media can help you get a sense of where a young person’s media literacy is at and where they’re getting their news. White supremacists — especially those who target youth — are often skilled propagandists who curate and design their content to be as appealing to children and teenagers as possible. A style guide for the fascist website Daily Stormer was leaked in 2018, revealing that staff were directed to “write at the 8th grade level” and to couch slurs in humour, so as to follow “the generally light tone of the site.”
Invite them to pick a story in the news, and then ask them questions like:
- Ask what they think about the people and groups in the story: Is there a hero or villain of this story? What clues did they use to decide that?
- Ask about who is included in the story, and who might be excluded. Why might those people have been excluded? Pay attention to responses that endorse a “both sides” view of stories about hate and oppression.
- Ask if they know anything about the author and publisher of the story. What do they think about the author and publisher’s credibility? Do they think the story has been framed fairly?
- Ask if they have seen this story told elsewhere, in a different way. What was different about it?
Pay attention to responses that cite outlets that have promoted far-right and/or other disinformation like Rebel Media, Post Millennial, The Daily Wire, Breitbart, FOX News, and OAN. While not overtly or explicitly fascist like the Daily Stormer, the programming history of these outlets has included hateful, bigoted, and conspiratorial content under the guise of respectability.
Talking to youth about current events allows you to get a feeling for how their political and social consciousness is developing. In combination with conversations about media, you can learn about where a young person is getting their information. Current events, particularly traumatic events, can be influential in shaping a young person’s ideology. That’s why it’s important to provide them with a supportive container for processing these events.
- Ask about what they already know about the event, and where they learned that. Have they heard anything about the event that doesn’t match what they know? Where did they hear that?
- Ask what questions they have about the event. Is there anything they have heard or seen that they don’t understand?
- Ask how they feel about this event.
- Ask what kinds of things have come up when they have talked to their friends or peers about this event? Do their friends or peers have questions or big feelings you can help with?
Pay attention to responses that scapegoat entire groups, involve conspiratorial thinking, or blame the victim. If you don’t have the answers, say that, and then try to find out together — this allows you to show humility, and model a robust research process. Remind them that even if they don’t have any questions right now, they can always ask you later.
In the case of traumatic or critical events, remind them that their first thoughts and feelings about it don’t always necessarily reflect the kind of people they want to be. Help them unpack and think critically about responses that rely on stereotypes and scapegoating.
We know from our time spent monitoring white supremacist spaces that young people in these spaces are often encouraged to have antagonistic feelings towards their teachers, and the content of classroom learning. Others in the space will leap upon more generic (but still concerning) statements of dissatisfaction and alienation from the content, and foment more extreme versions of these sentiments. Asking about school can be a way to intercept those more generic (but still concerning) attitudes, and help a young person process and think critically about them.
- Ask what they are learning in their classes. Consider asking specifically about social sciences and humanities courses, like history, English, social studies, religion, and civics. Issues around diversity, equity, inclusion, and social justice are more likely to come up in these classes, which we have seen provoke strong reactions in youth who are engaging with hateful ideologies.
- Ask if there is anything they don’t understand about what they are learning. If you aren’t able to explain it, look for the answer together.
- Ask if there is anything they disagree with. There are many things that a young person might learn at school and validly — or not-so-validly — disagree with.
Classrooms are not inherently anti-oppressive spaces. For example, a teacher on Vancouver Island received complaints from students for using the n-slur while reading a novel during lessons on Black History Month.
Pay attention for responses that endorse or express curiosity about Holocaust denial or other historic revisionism about atrocities and genocides (i.e. “We don’t really know how many Jews died in the Holocaust” or “My teacher doesn’t talk about any of the benefits of residential schools”).
As the SPLC and the Polarization and Extremism Research and Innovation Lab reported in their Parents and Caregivers Guide to Online Radicalization, “Extremists looking to recruit and convert children are predatory. Like all forms of child exploitation, extremist recruitment drives a wedge between young people and the adults they would typically trust.”
Sometimes, they are able to drive this wedge by preying on very real circumstances of abuse and neglect in a young person’s family of origin. A 2020 study on the extent and nature of adverse childhood experiences (ACE) among former white supremacists, found an association between “the cumulative impact of multiple adverse experiences during childhood” and involvement in white supremacist extremism.
The good news is that research has also indicated that the detrimental effects of childhood trauma can be effectively buffered by relationships with supportive adults – this is a major reason why we consider confronting and preventing hate in Canadian schools to be a shared responsibility among all adults who are invested in the wellbeing of youth.
If you are concerned about a youth in your life, we are available for free, confidential consultation and assessment at any time at [email protected].