Pandemic Poses Radicalization Risks For Children

From children living in extremist households to those consuming extremist content on social media, the pandemic has left them vulnerable to radicalization.
Photo by Thomas Park on Unsplash

Photo by Thomas Park on Unsplash

Bàrbara Molas is PhD candidate in History at York University (Toronto) and Head of Publishing at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). At York, Bàrbara studies far-right understandings of multiculturalism in Canada.

Despite the fact that there has been a steady increase in radicalization among minors in the last few years, COVID-19 has exacerbated the situation. This is in part due to lockdown restrictions, which have led children and youngsters to spend more time online, exposing themselves to an unprecedented amount of extremist material on social media.

Seizing the opportunity, extremist recruiters have adapted their narratives and methods to enhance hatred and distrust towards democratic institutions and between communities. Besides online content like chats, memes, and videos, video games have proven to be a crucial tool for the recruitment of minors into far-right groups during the pandemic. In “shoot ‘em up” video games, for example, the far-right steers hatred towards visible minorities by picturing ethnic and religious minorities as targets, and soldiers of visible European descent as heroes. The result has been a dramatic increase in the risk of radicalization among internet users under 18 years old.

But it is not only external threats that minors are exposed to. During the pandemic, the time children spend with their families has increased considerably as well, and we know that the role of families in youth radicalization has always been important. Studies have shown that the far right is associated with the desire to raise children to be “tough, unemotional and unempathetic” (a widespread way to look at upbringing during Nazi and early postwar Germany, for example). In other words, if parents are radicalized, chances are their children will be too. That means that resources to deradicalize children aiming to parents can be utterly ineffective when the kids’ own emotional or support system is directly infected by far-right thought.

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In spite of this, movies such as The Boy with the striped pyjamas (2008 – first a book published in 2006) or JoJo Rabbit (2019) have stressed the capacity for children to remain innocent regardless of what their families have taught them to believe. In The Boy with the striped pyjamas, nine-year-old Bruno moves with his family from Berlin to the countryside. The house where they move in, however, is situated nearby a concentration camp – where Bruno’s father Ralf, a commanding officer in the Nazi party, has been reassigned to work. Keeping his family in the dark about his job responsibilities, Ralf makes sure that Bruno’s and his sister’s education is overseen by a tutor that pushes an agenda of antisemitism and Nazi propaganda.

One day, playing in the woods around his house, Bruno ends up finding the wire fence surrounding the concentration camp, through which he sees another kid – a Jewish nine-year-old. Bruno and the imprisoned kid become friends, and most of the movie focuses on showing how, despite everything that Bruno has learned as a young Nazi, his childish innocence allows for love and compassion to prevail throughout the relationship.

Compassion is also a relevant element in JoJo Rabbit (2019), which is about a ten-year-old German enlisted in the Hitler Youth brigade who adores Hitler. In fact, Hitler is Jojo’s imaginary friend. This is relevant because Jojo’s father is absent from his life, and it would seem that Hitler has taken upon that role – giving Jojo advice and encouraging him whenever he needs it.

In spite of having Hitler himself as a father figure, the movie focuses on Jojo’s capacity to remain ‘a child’ – someone who simply enjoys summer camp and group belonging. One of the ways the movie highlights this is by explaining the origins of Jojo’s nickname Rabbit, which emerges from him refusing to hurt a rabbit while training at the Hitler Youth camp – his task was to kill it. So, again, even though Jojo was highly influenced by Hitler throughout the story, what prevails is his compassion and innocence.

The latest movie that reproduces this phenomenon is Recrue or Rebel (2020), a Quebecois short film which is currently in the ‘long list’ of Oscar nominations. In this compelling film, Alex, a six-year-old French-Canadian, seems oblivious to his father’s involvement in a far-right group called Thor Troopers (inspired by La Meute), who hunts trespassing migrants around Quebec’s border.

In fact, Alex helps his father’s friends find a family of Syrian refugees who are hiding in the woods while he is playing hide-and-seek. The fate of these refugees, once they are captured by the Troopers, is unrevealed. At the end of the short film, Alex is seen letting a stray cat into his house (despite his father’s instructions not to do so) in order to feed it. He felt compassion toward the cat – why would someone deny food to a hungry and unsheltered being? Once again, childhood innocence prevails.

Yet, despite such narratives, we know that children’s innocence is not incorruptible, and that manipulation and radicalization can take place from within at a very young age. What the Quebecois film calls ‘rebels’ are, to my mind, victims. Those victims are the living seeds of radicalization, and insisting upon their innocent part in the play doesn’t help them grow to be anything but extremists. Unfortunately, the age at which a child can cease being one is becoming lower and lower.

In Britain, a nine-year-old was recruited by his older brother, who showed his younger sibling “extreme neo-Nazi video games”. Just a little more than a month ago, a neo-Nazi 13-year-old British boy became the “youngest terror offender” in history after downloading his first bombmaking manual and joining the online forum Fascist Forge. Also recently, VICE released an interview with a former neo-Nazi who affirmed that “the youngest person we engaged with was nine years of age”. He explained that far-right extremist groups recruit children because “they could be there for decades and that’s basically the stormtrooper that you want.”

It is fantastic to see that resources on how to prevent your children’s radicalization are increasing; and that some parents have been successful at stopping their kids from being radicalized; and that former radicalized individuals are coming to light to help. But what do we do with those parents who don’t want their kids deradicalized, rather the opposite?

Research has shown that trying to warn parents with strong political opinions of the risk of their children being radicalized can be futile. Instead, the suggestion is a focus on education: teaching young people that there are non-violent ways to change society and get one’s voice heard. This way, as argued by L. Davies, we will be “channeling their youthful energy and willpower constructively.” A multi-agency approach is also encouraged, in which families, schools, social services, health services, and municipalities work together to identify vulnerable children and prevent radicalization. But even this approach recognizes the difficulties involved in the task when the child’s parents or guardians are not fully supporting the process.

This brief piece didn’t aim to give an answer to the question of how we go about deradicalizing children whose upbringing is in the hands of neo-Nazis. Rather, it wants to bring attention to the stress that stories focused on ‘looking at evil through innocent eyes’ are putting upon the (almost unbreakable) purity of childish compassion. They do so (it is my impression) to tell us that there is hope in the new generations, and I understand the value in that. But that hope leaves the audience content. That is what I think is unhelpful. My belief is that what we need to do instead is remind ourselves that children can successfully be influenced; they can successfully be corrupted; and they can successfully be tools of the far right. How young do they have to be for us to see that?

This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world.

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