By Jon Pedlar, former Prevent Education Officer and teacher
Are young people really at risk of radicalisation? This is not a yes or no question.
The digital age means young people are spending more and more time online, often unsupervised. With the numerous benefits of the internet, there also comes a plethora of risks that are important to safeguard against. To protect young people, it’s important to have an understanding of the vulnerabilities and the tools used by those wanting to manipulate their views and behaviours.
The online space has become a prolific means for targeting vulnerable individuals.
Take, for example 4chan – an imageboard website containing user-created message boards. Much of 4chan’s content is harmless: papercraft and origami, or animals and nature. But other boards carry a greater threat. This is not the “dark web” but publicly available, easily accessible content, only two or three clicks away from your search engine home page. So, if a young person presents a key vulnerability, and finds themselves accessing online spaces where extremists may sit, they could be at risk.
There is no key profile of an individual drawn into extremism. There are, however, commonalities that often serve to increase vulnerability and susceptibility to extremist rhetoric. Historically, these have included:
- political disillusionment
- family bereavement
- social isolation
- low self-esteem.
If one of these vulnerabilities exists – or indeed any other – a young person may be more receptive to extremist content online. Extremist narratives aim to spread a worldview that aims to explain complex issues, which may resonate with young people. This, in turn, can impact an individual’s views and behaviours.
The solution is not to ban screen-time, or block all potentially dangerous websites.
Radicalisation is rarely spontaneous but is built up through systemic grievances, close relationships or compelling propaganda which exploits them. Tackling contentious issues in the classroom is a means of allowing students to be open in their opinions, without fear of reproach.
Practising British values is a useful way of fostering and nurturing young people to become discerning individuals with sound judgement. For instance, exploring the rule of law through the lens of: “How does the government represent me?” Or practising tolerance for different faiths and beliefs by learning about different religious or cultural traditions.
When students are engaged in conversation effectively, these taboo subjects which could lead to disinformation, become important tools in the armoury to protect themselves against extremist narratives.