The teenage years are years of growth, uncertainty, vulnerability, and change. It can be a rather awkward social stage that is filled with insecurity, bullying, verbal messaging that is destructive and a great deal of searching for purpose and meaning. It is the life journey from childhood to adulthood with an entire world of options to define their identities, mostly including social media. At the same time, much of social media is largely unmonitored and uncontrolled with the types of messaging that it promotes.
I heard recently that the internet is our new social life. Particularly while we were isolated in the pandemic our teenagers were confined to a life of internet relationships through messaging, gaming, and searching to find all kinds of life connections. Not all of them were unhealthy but there were some very intriguing and destructive influencers that were sending disinformation and actually seeking to engage and groom our kids into a world of radical thinking.
It reminds me of the same antics of gangs that engage vulnerable individuals by creating an environment where they can belong and be accepted. It begins by a gradual enticement period that feels like a new belonging which then turns into a kind of transference of values that can support violence, crime and other destructive behavior.
Similarly, a young man may be playing video games on certain platforms and once engaged he can be invited into a variety of groups. It might begin with rather innocent encounters which can gradually lead to disinformation, grooming and eventual radicalization. He may have problems of his own and then be told that those problems are real and are caused by something or someone we can all hate, revolt from and eventually perform violence against. When the internet histories of the recent mass shooters was checked this was their journey to unprecedented violence.
Unfortunately, neither law enforcement nor the internet providers are equipped to stop these private sites, so they often have relative autonomy. It is such a draw to those teenagers who are struggling with life circumstances that have left them in anxiety. They are looking to find a place where they can find some explanation for what is happening to them, or for a fit, and these groups give them answers that pull them into a more radicalized view of the world. It grooms them to extremism.
For parents, family members, school staff and others involved in the lives of teenagers it is essential that we all have our radar on high alert, particularly for those teens who seem to have some adversities or insecurities. We tend to ignore the individuals who quietly withdraw when in fact they may be actively being engaged into a world of darkness that may destroy their lives or the lives of others. This is a growing world of fear and extreme philosophies that can easily lead to violence. We need to do all we can to protect our teenagers from these radical influencers that can create a heartbreaking path towards a life of significant devastation.
Gerry Vassar, President/CEO