By Joanna Schroeder
Oct. 12, 2019
Raising teenagers can be terrifying. Our squishy little babies become awkward hormonal creatures who question our authority at every turn.
I expected that. What I didn’t predict was that my sons’ adolescence would include being drawn to the kind of online content that right-wing extremists use to recruit so many young men.
The first sign was a seemingly innocuous word, used lightheartedly: “triggered.”
As my 11- and 14-year-old sons and their friends talked and bantered — phones in hand, as always — in the back seat of the car, one of them shouted it in response to a meme, and they all laughed uproariously.
I almost lost control of the car. That’s because I know that word — often used to mock people who are hurt or offended by racism as overly sensitive — is a calling card of the alt-right, which the Anti-Defamation League defines as “a segment of the white supremacist movement consisting of a loose network of racists and anti-Semites who reject mainstream conservatism in favor of politics that embrace implicit or explicit racism, anti-Semitism and white supremacy.” People associated with this group are known for trolling those who disagree with them, and calling critics “triggered” is a favorite tactic.
The next red flag: I watched my son scroll through Instagram and double-click on an image, lighting up a heart that signifies a “like.”
“Hold on a minute,” I said, snatching his phone. “Was that Hitler?”
The meme showed a man in contemporary clothing tipping off the Nazi leader to the invasion of Normandy. My son said he hadn’t even read it, he’d just assumed the time traveler was trying to kill Hitler, not help him. He was shocked and embarrassed when I pointed out the actual message: that it would have been better if the Holocaust had continued.
“I’m not stupid enough to like a Hitler meme on purpose, Mom,” he said. “And anyway, I’m sure my friend shared it to be ironic.”
I didn’t see the irony and my son couldn’t explain it. I talked to him about the Holocaust, the trauma and violence that Jewish people all over the world still experience and my late friend Edith, whose delicate arm displayed a number tattoo that stopped my heart every time I saw it. He knew all this already, but I worried that he was forgetting. I worried that he was being pulled toward a worldview that would see this painful history as fodder for jokes, or worse, as something to celebrate.
At a time when the F.B.I. reports a 17 percent rise in hate crime incidents from 2016 to 2017, the most recent year for which there is data, white parents like me have had recent, terrifying reminders that we must prevent our sons from becoming indoctrinated by a growing racist movement that thrives online and causes real-life devastation.
In August, a young white man who admitted to targeting Mexicans killed 22 people in an El Paso Walmart. In New Zealand, 51 people were killed when a gunman attacked mosques filled with worshipers observing Friday prayers. In the past year, a total of 12 worshipers were killed in the U.S. in two hate-motivated attacks on synagogues in Pittsburgh and San Diego.
In each of these cases, the killers were white men with a history of extremism. The San Diego gunman, for instance, left a manifesto on 8chan also claiming responsibility for a mosque fire. And the San Diego and New Zealand gunmen posted hate-filled online manifestoes that included internet-culture references, such as references to memes and a notorious shout-out to a noteworthy YouTube personality. Both of them mentioned or alluded to the “white genocide” — which the Anti-Defamation League defines as the white-supremacist belief that the white race is “dying” because of growing nonwhite populations and “forced assimilation.”
But of course, it’s not just that we want to prevent our sons from becoming perpetrators of mass shootings. We want to raise them to be the kind of men who would never march with the neo-Nazis who chanted “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville before one of them killed a counterprotester, Heather Heyer. Beyond that, we want to keep them from becoming supporters of the racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and gender- or sexuality-based hatred that is on the rise.
Unfortunately, extremists know how to find new recruits in the very place our sons spend so much of their time: online. And too often, they’re more aware than we are of how vulnerable young white men are to radicalization.
According to Jackson Katz, author of “The Macho Paradox: Why Some Men Hurt Women and How All Men Can Help,” it’s not necessarily the ideology behind white nationalism, anti-feminism or the alt-right that initially appeals to young white men and boys as much as it is the sense of being part of a “heroic struggle.”
Participating in the alt-right community online “offers the seductive feeling of being part of a brotherhood, which in turn validates their manhood,” Dr. Katz says. YouTubers and participants in chat forums like 4chan, the defunct 8chan and Discord “regularly denigrate liberal or progressive white men as soft, emasculated ‘soy boys’ and insufficiently aggressive or right-wing white men as ‘cucks.’”
It also 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. When they’re white and male, they’re spoon-fed a list of scapegoats: people of color, feminists, immigrants, L.G.B.T.Q. people. 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.
So what can parents do? First, we need to understand how this works.
A favorite activity for many boys is to watch gamers playing video games on YouTube. According to John Duffy, author of “Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety,” the problems come with advertisements that may appear during the videos. Kids can be exposed to dozens of ads in a sitting. They might hear about the border, or “Crooked Hillary” or a conspiracy theory on how the left works, Dr. Duffy said. Many of these spots are created and promoted by organizations like PragerU, which, Dr. Duffy notes, is not an accredited university but a propaganda machine that introduces viewers to extremist views via video. And YouTube’s recommendation algorithm offers videos that become more and more extreme as viewers watch them.
“There is a sophisticated psychology at play,” Dr. Duffy warns, noting that today’s teenagers have been using smartphones and tablets their whole lives. They like to dive deeper into topics that pique their curiosity, which is a great thing. The problem is they often turn to the internet before their parents for answers. Recommended videos and comments left on YouTube can lead them to threads full of racism and conspiracy theories on forums like 4chan. Google may lead them to white nationalist outlets like The Daily Stormer, where hate and harassment are normalized. Often, they have no idea which sources are reputable.
They may also find videos by more mainstream figures, including members of the so-called intellectual dark web like Jordan Peterson, a Canadian psychologist and professor at the University of Toronto, whose conservative perspectives on feminism and gender are very popular among young men and often are a path to more extreme content and ideologies.
In an interview with the actor Alan Alda for the podcast “Clear+Vivid,” Christian Picciolini, a former Nazi, explains that modern white supremacists create friendships and build trust in online spaces such as autism chat rooms and gaming-related forums. They “go to these places and they promise them paradise,” he says.
Inevitably, kids who have encountered these messages will mimic extremist talking points, and those of us who find these views repulsive may be tempted to yell at them, ground them or take away their devices in a futile attempt to keep them away from this propaganda.
The problem is, punitive responses often create a sense of shame that can feed a growing sense of anger — an anger the alt-right is eager to exploit.
What really hooks many white teenagers is the alt-right’s insistence that white men are under attack in America, the true victims of oppression. If your child has already been punished for his opinions, this message is especially resonant. They find a home for their rage, a brotherhood of guys like them, and that oh-so-alluring heroic struggle — and that’s how an extremist is born.
One family Dr. Duffy sees in his clinical practice found that the key to opening up conversation with their son, who was showing signs of indoctrination into alt-right communities, was to start by saying they were proud of his efforts to develop opinions that weren’t spoon-fed to him and to promise to listen to their son’s perspective if he would listen to theirs.
According to Dr. Duffy, once the family started communicating more openly and their son’s views lost their status as a mark of edginess or rebellion, the teenager softened his stances and even disabled his alt-right meme accounts.
Parents also need to encourage our sons how to think critically about the things they’re hearing online. One term I’ve debunked in this way for my kids is “snowflake.” An insult embraced by moderate conservatives and the alt-right alike, it’s used to dismiss people who complain about racism, sexism or homophobia as laughably delicate.
When one of my kids used it, I smiled and, in a conspiratorial tone, asked him to think about this: Who is more of a delicate snowflake? The person who wants people to stop racial slurs or mocking of gay people or the person who is upset and offended by the use of the phrase “Happy Holidays” — a common talking point during Fox News’s infamous War on Christmas segments?
He thought about it and laughed at the irony. He, like the rest of us, sees that Christmas is promoted everywhere in society and isn’t going anywhere. I also took the opportunity to explain that calling someone who is upset or offended a “snowflake” or “triggered” is just a lazy — and often hypocritical — way to justify treating that person poorly. For my sons, this conversation was effective. After all, they don’t want to hurt anyone, and they’ve long understood that a person who refuses to take responsibility and apologize is probably a jerk. But they needed a reminder.
Perhaps the best tool is prevention. Kids need to understand — before they encounter their first alt-right memes — what white supremacy looks like. It’s not just a person in a K.K.K. hood but also the smooth-talking YouTuber in the suit or the seemingly friendly voice in the video game forum.
If we avoid talking about our values about race and the experiences of marginalized people, strangers on the internet will be happy to share theirs.
“Right now, our fear about addressing race causes us to leave kids guessing,” says Shelly Tochluk, a professor of education at Mount Saint Mary’s University, Los Angeles, and author of “Witnessing Whiteness: The Need to Talk About Race and How to Do It.” “They fill in the blanks with whatever they see online, and this includes horrifically twisted messages from white nationalists.”
Parents of white kids need to talk about race and racism and how they’ve played out in this country — a lot. That history includes horrors and tragedies, but as Dr. Tochluk says, it also “includes the fact that there have always been groups of white people in the United States who have fought for freedom and liberty for all.”
“In our choices and actions,” she says, “white people can align ourselves with that lineage.”
Dr. Katz suggested, “To counteract the seductiveness of that appeal from the right, we need to offer them a better definition of strength: that true strength resides in respecting and lifting up others, not seeking to dominate them.”
I’m working hard to instill these values in my kids. But keeping them away from the radical right is a continuing project for me and should be for any parent. I have confidence that they’re more equipped than they were a year ago to detect and reject hateful messages, but in the meantime, every time they laugh at a so-called edgy meme, I’m going to make it my mission to find out what’s so funny.