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How parents can spot the warning signs of radicalization in their kids

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to start today with a focus on one of the disturbing but, frankly, all too common elements of that mass shooting in Buffalo this month - the online footprint. Investigators are scouring through it. They say the shooter outlined his plans for the attack on the instant messaging platform Discord. These logs are in addition to a 200-page document of racist conspiracy theories, which was also online, as was the attack itself, since it was livestreamed. All these facts expose a grim truth - that the internet is home to a lot of violent, extremist content.

To that end, New York Attorney General Letitia James announced that her office would be investigating the social media companies and their role in promoting hateful messages. In a statement, she said, quote, "time and time again, we have seen the real-world devastation that is borne of these dangerous and hateful platforms, and we're doing everything in our power to shine a spotlight on this alarming behavior." But what may be surprising to some is how much of this content is targeted to kids, teens and young adults, especially white teenage boys, to expose them to racist and sexist ideas.

Joanna Schroeder is a parent and a writer who has seen this and tried to warn other parents about this for some time now. So we called her to share her ideas about how to deal with it, and she's with us now. Joanna Schroeder, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

JOANNA SCHROEDER: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So we remembered you, actually, from a powerful piece you wrote about this in The New York Times almost three years ago. So as briefly as you can, will you just remind us about how you came to write about this specific topic?

SCHROEDER: Unfortunately, it came from some degree of experience of looking over my kid's shoulders as they scrolled their Instagram - this was before TikTok even existed - and seeing what kind of memes existed in their timelines. And it was disturbing. This was content that felt very aggressive. Sometimes it was supposed to be funny, but it very clearly had hate-filled, bigoted messages at the core.

MARTIN: Just to be clear, your boys weren't seeking this out. This wasn't something they were looking for. Like, they weren't trying to join some neo-Nazi group or something. This is what - this is stuff that was just kind of flowing into their feeds, right?

SCHROEDER: Yeah, that's correct. And I do believe that most teenagers see this content on TikTok or on Instagram or whatever platforms they're on. But I think my boys were seeing it specifically because they are gamers. They do other things than just gaming, but they do play video games, and we support that they do it. They love it. They have healthy habits around it. And gaming kids tend to be the ones that are most directly targeted, from my own experience, because they're online a lot and because I believe these people who want to get this message out think that they're a vulnerable population. And so once they're searching things related to gaming and livestreams, maybe Fortnite, maybe whatever game they're playing, all of a sudden, they're seen by that algorithm as someone who may be interested in sort of anti-democracy or, you know, racist or bigoted content. It's very disturbing.

MARTIN: Yeah. Here's - I'm going to read one paragraph from your piece. You say, it seems to me as a mom that these groups prey upon the natural awkwardness of adolescence. Many kids feel out of place, frustrated and misunderstood and are vulnerable to the idea that someone else is responsible for their discontent. And when they're white and male, they're spoon-fed a list of scapegoats - people of color, feminists, immigrants, LGBTQ people. And you say if they really embrace this, it's not hard to convince them that there's a white genocide happening and that these people and the leftists who represent their interests are to blame.

I'm just guessing that a lot of parents could hear that and go, OK, I get it. So now you also offer some thoughts about what parents can do. First thing is, you talk about what to try not to do. You say that the punitive response often creates a sense of shame that then leads to anger that the alt-right is very eager to exploit. So talk about that for a minute.

SCHROEDER: We know that the boys that are susceptible to this are probably already feeling disenfranchised and distant from their parents. So if we react by pushing them further away, maybe we're saying things that they feel are hateful toward them. We might say that, oh, hey, that's racist. Hey, that's sexist. And if we do that with shame instead of inviting them in, it pushes them toward those people. The antidote to that is probably trying to see in your child when they say something that they consider irreverent that may be offensive or even oppressive in its nature, that we try to get over our own anger as white parents and our own maybe triggered emotions, which I know I have when I hear anti-feminist statements - it reminds me of being a unpopular girl in high school and being a feminist online. I have to step away from my anger. So if we can calm ourselves down and look at, what does this child think he's doing? What is the need that's not being served within him that I can address? So you have to take a breath through that frustration and that anger and dig into, like, can you tell me why this is funny? I'm just super curious. Like, I don't - I'm not trying to be mean. I'm not trying to judge you. I'm just curious. Like, what made you laugh about this? And hear what he has to say so that he feels like he can talk things out with you without being shamed or blamed or cast aside.

MARTIN: As I mentioned at the beginning of our conversation, you wrote about this years ago, almost three years ago in The New York Times. What response did you get?

SCHROEDER: Well, when I first - the first thing I did was write a Twitter thread when I saw a meme that had Hitler come across one of my kids' Instagram feeds. My kids didn't understand the dog whistle and the subcontext of the meme, but I immediately jumped on Twitter, and I wrote a threat and just vented my feelings and my fears. And that went wildly viral, at least by my standards. And the pushback I received then was, this is ridiculous. Memes don't radicalize kids. Memes are just jokes. Kids know the difference between, you know, propaganda and jokes. They're not as naive as you think they are.

And I think it's been pretty - it's been pretty sickening to see that those memes and those images have appeared in the manifesto of this Buffalo shooter. I think that those of us who were keyed into this early on are frustrated that it wasn't received then and that parents didn't realize the degree to which meme culture, when it's used for hate, really does affect our kids. It really does influence them, and the evidence is right there in that manifesto.

MARTIN: That was Joanna Schroeder. She's a freelance writer and editor. We're talking about a piece that she wrote in 2019 in The New York Times. The title is "Racists Are Recruiting. Watch Your White Sons." Joanna Schroeder, thank you so much for talking with us.

SCHROEDER: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.