Parents wanting to protect their children on the internet have more to watch out for than would-be molesters. As well as protecting our children’s bodies, it’s important for us to protect their minds and thereby safeguard their futures. Any manual of parents’ online safety tips should include a warning about the extremist groups who may set their sights on your kids.
Extremist groups, both religious and political, have found a natural home on the internet. There they can achieve strength in numbers even if their members are geographically diverse.
Small cults can wield a powerful influence because, ultimately, the internet is all about the exchange if ideas, and they don’t face the same social barriers which they would in person. Many of them deliberately target children because children, having been exposed to fewer ideas in the course of their lives, are less able to approach them critically, and are more easily persuaded to develop new allegiances.
Children are also more likely to retain the sympathies they develop at this stage – what might be a passing experimental interest for an adult will often stay with them for the rest of their lives.
In order to protect children from extremist groups it’s important to understand that they won’t always present themselves under obvious names or with simple agendas. Rather than attempting to anticipate every possible influence of this sort, the best parents’ online safety tips involve encouraging children to question the new ideas with which they are presented and to discuss them openly.
If this means they come to you with ideas which you find shocking, don’t just shout them down. Encourage them to engage in open discussion and help them to see for themselves where the flaws in those ideas might be. An angry reaction is likely to make them feel that they should never have spoken to you – and, of course, isolating children from their parents gives extremists a big advantage when it comes to indoctrination.
Online extremism is a serious threat, and it can strike in unexpected places, with middle class children statistically at the highest risk. But if you keep the channels of communication open and empower your children with a positive attitude to critical thinking, you can make sure it doesn’t win.