How Online Groups Use Social Media to Exploit and Radicalize Teens

Tips for Parents -How to Help Your Child Have A Safer Experience Online

Sharon Winkler
Social Media Harms
3 min readFeb 18, 2021

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Photo by Alexis Brown on Unsplash

Radical groups and people who want to harm children and adolescents have used online gaming and social media sites to connect to and build relationships with them. This manipulation has greatly increased as the COVID-19 epidemic has driven children on-line in unprecedented numbers through on-line learning and curtailment of social activities.

On February 17, 2021, the Polarization and Extremism Research Innovation Lab (PERIL) of American University, Washington, D.C. and the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) held a panel discussion on Zoom regarding online radicalization and exploitation of youth and introducing a toolkit for parents and educators, Building Resilience & Confronting Risk. July 2021 note: this toolkit was updated in June 2021.

Brian Hughes, Associate Director of PERIL, stated that 10–15 year olds are prime targets. He warns that “edgy humor isn’t always just “edgy humor” and that parents, caregivers and educators need to ask questions if a child or teenager starts telling these “jokes” , starts using unfamiliar terms, such as “BlackPill” or starts talking about ideologies that they have never discussed before.

Lorin LaFave, Director of The Breck Foundation, related how her 14 year old son was groomed by an 18 year old who ran an online gaming server. Despite warnings that his online friend was telling him lies and attempts from his parents to protect him, Breck agreed to meet him and was murdered during their first in-person meeting. The video Breck’s Last Game, has been distributed in secondary schools across the United Kingdom to highlight the risks of grooming by asking the question, “Do you know who your online friends really are?”

Young people are exposed to harmful internet media content through algorithmic group and “interest” recommendations and also by “likes” , retweets or other forwarding or recommendation mechanisms by friends/acquaintances through sites such as Facebook, Tic Tok, Instagram, YouTube, Teamspeak (via Steam, Xbox, PS2), Discord, iFunny, Twitter or through “upvoting” on Reddit. Per Adrienne Massanari, Associate Professor of Communication at the University of Illinois at Chicago, algorithmic recommendations are creating amplification or “snowballing” increasing the spread and impact of harmful messages, by curating interests ( e.g., if a person frequently accesses information about cats, the algorithm will increasingly bring up posts created by other users’ posts, tweets, videos, etc about cats).

Massanarti related that radical groups and others who harm children are increasingly using seemingly innocent message strings, such as the static image subreddit “advice animals” to spread harmful content. This is possible due to ineffective moderation of online posts. She related that a major concern is that social media sites often use unpaid members or low paid contract workers to moderate content. These moderators are often provided no training or mental health resources to support them.

Other countries, such as the United Kingdom have passed laws and regulations to address some of these harms. The United Kingdom’s Information Commissioner’s Office announced age appropriate design codes for children and teenagers in September 2020 that technology companies must comply with by September 2021. The United States must also regulate these social media companies to mitigate these harms.

Social media technology has resulted in many negative, unintended consequences. These negative consequences are downplayed by social media companies and their supporters. Social Media Harms was created to provide peer reviewed studies, books and articles from authoritative sources that document the negative effects of social media use. It is meant to be a tool to be used by people who are concerned about social media’s negative effects on people’s emotions, actions and lives. We do not solicit donations, however, we are asking for additions to our lists of peer reviewed studies and authoritative books and articles.

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Sharon Winkler
Social Media Harms

Publisher/Editor Social Media Harms, https://socialmediaharms.org. Mother, Grandmother, Retired U. S. Naval Officer