By Lindsay Schubiner, Momentum Program Director, Western States Center
Keeping your child safe online has always been a challenge and an imperative for parents, but recent years have shown that it’s more important than ever, especially when it comes to bigoted and white nationalist groups actively targeting young audiences. If you feel a little overwhelmed by the scope and stakes of the challenge of keeping your child safe from bigoted views and dangerous movements like white nationalism, you’re not the only one.
These bigoted groups are increasingly finding their way to kids on social media platforms and even gaming sites. How do you, as a parent, prepare your child to recognize this content for what it is when they encounter it? How can you discuss it with them effectively when you may not be as digitally fluent as your child? The task may seem daunting, but you do have the power to make a difference and keep your child safe, if you have the right tools and strategies.
- Exposure to bigoted ideas is very common
The first step to addressing a problem is recognizing that it exists, and the reality is that most kids will encounter bigoted, anti-democracy, white nationalist and conspiracy theory-based content, especially online. White nationalist leaders have publicly admitted that they intentionally try to reach young people, and Gen Z’s level of engagement on platforms like TikTok, Instagram, Twitch and Discord mean that’s where they are likely to encounter these attitudes and the jokes and memes meant to make bigotry seem cool.
2. It begins with vigilance
Protecting your child in this arena, like in so many others, begins with vigilance. Each home will find their right balance of oversight of social media and internet use, but being aware of what content your child is engaging with and on what platforms is a necessary part of keeping them safe. Don’t approach this as a monitor or a censor — approach it as someone who shares your child’s interests and is curious about their friends and the things they find stimulating and funny, and have conversations about it.
3. Learn to recognize and don’t overlook the warning signs
Your child’s first encounters with these ideas will likely not be full-blown manifestos or dark web chat rooms — they will probably first encounter offensive jokes, stereotypes, minimization of violence, and memes on some of the same social media sites you may use yourself. In order to recognize some of this harmful content, you may want to educate yourself on the lingo and visuals of white nationalist and anti-democracy groups to pick up on these early warning signs. Also remain attuned to changes in your child — more time spent isolating and online, a push-back against long-held views and values, or changes in their friend group — and make sure to keep lines of communication open.
4. Have an open-door policy and a judgment free-zone
The ability to have difficult conversations with your child begins with establishing a prerequisite degree of openness that encourages them to come to you with thoughts, ideas and concerns — an open-door policy. Your engagement with these ideas should come from a place of clear interest, curiosity and a desire to understand and explore — not from a place of judgment or punitive intervention. As tempting as the latter may seem when you perceive your child is in danger, it’s important to understand that overreaction or harshness can have an opposite effect here, and that many white nationalists encourage those they influence to see such corrective interventions as “politically correct” evidence of the assault on their “free speech.”
5. Start from a recognition that your child’s views matter and appeal to shared values
These difficult conversations can easily trigger a defensive response in your child, which is why it is important to start from a position of respect, curiosity, and an acknowledgement that your child is allowed to ask questions. You should avoid badmouthing and name-calling groups and individuals they feel attracted to or admire. Instead, ask why your child finds those views compelling and how they reconcile these new views with their values, as well as those of their family and community. Don’t overreact or be dismissive — engage constructively and help your child understand bigoted ideas in a broader and historical context, and help them ask smarter questions for themselves to pick these ideas apart.
6. Media literacy is key
A core part of debunking and defending against these bigoted messages and inoculating your children from their influence is strong media literacy. This goes beyond just evaluating credibility and is about encouraging your child to question the motives behind content they encounter, be it jokes or memes or more fleshed out bigoted arguments. Internalizing the process of questioning what they see and read from multiple angles better prepares them for the challenges of encountering disinformation, conspiracy theories and bigoted ideas online.
7. You’re not alone — enlist allies
On difficult subjects, we all know that parents and guardians aren’t always the voice their child is most receptive to or most eager to hear. Enlist the help of a trusted adult that your child is close to, and with care to not violate the child’s privacy, leverage the relationship of trust to reinforce common values and push back on bigotry and conspiracy theories.
8. It takes a village
You’ve heard the expression that it takes a village to raise a child, and the same applies here. Keeping your child safe and helping to pull them back once they’ve been influenced by bigotry or conspiracy theories online are both easier when education and resources come not just from you, the parent, but also the school and the community. Encourage your school and other community institutions to prioritize digital literacy education and critical thinking skills, and make sure that the curriculum includes learning about present-day and historical leaders and authors who are people of color, women, and LGBTQ. Being involved alongside your children in positive community organizations can also help to reinforce and strengthen their inclusive and pro-democracy values.