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Brette Steele and Rachel Hunkler USA Today Op-Ed: Stop Hate Groups From Recruiting Children

WASHINGTON, D.C. – In an op-ed published by USA Today, McCain Institute Senior Director for Preventing Targeted Violence Brette Steele and McCain Institute Senior Program Manager for Preventing Targeted Violence Rachel Hunkler write about the need for caring adults to support youth in how to navigate the hateful ideologies they encounter online.

The McCain Institute launched its new SCREEN Hate campaign this week, which provides caregivers and concerned adults with the knowledge, tools and resources needed to keep youth safe from online messages that could incite acts of hate-based violence. Steele will represent the McCain Institute at the White House’s “United We Stand Summit” on September 15 to counter hate-fueled violence.

Read the op-ed below.

Hate groups are targeting our children. Here’s how you can help to protect them online.
By Brette Steele and Rachel Hunkler
September 14, 2022

Uvalde. Buffalo. Boulder. El Paso. Santa Fe. Parkland. Sadly, we know the names of these cities all too well – home to six of the nine deadliest U.S. mass shootings over the last five years. All carried out by people age 21 or younger. Mass acts of hate-based violence have become such a national issue that the White House is hosting a summit Thursday on Sept. 15 to counter their corrosive effects on our democracy and public safety.

This alarming trend appears against the backdrop of teens and young adults coming of age during a time of uncertainty, isolation and social unrest. They are also spending more time online than ever before.

Tweens and teens’ screen media time has increased 17% since March 2020 — a faster increase than the combined four years before COVID-19. On average, 90% of teens ages 13 to 17 use social media, and they spend almost nine hours a day online outside of homework time.

While online spaces provide youth a place to connect, not all these interactions are positive. Young people frequently encounter dehumanizing language and “us versus them” narratives on their screens. Seven out of 10 teens in grades 8 to 12 are seeing hate online at least once a week, with more than 33% viewing hate online daily.

Hate groups are exploiting this increased screen time to spread their propaganda. Members take advantage of adolescents’ desire for belonging, using humor and skilled grooming techniques to slowly pull young people down the rabbit hole. While all forms of hate and extremism can be found online, far-right and anti-government groups are the most prevalent.

What’s more, hateful ideologies often are initially disguised as entertaining content, such as memes, games and music. This makes it harder for adults and teens to distinguish between humor and hate.

Most teens and young adults who encounter hate online don’t go looking for it — they come across it by chance. It’s a matter of when, not if, a young person will come across hateful rhetoric. Caring adults must be prepared for that day so they can offer informed guidance.

To help, the McCain Institute has launched the SCREEN Hate campaign. SCREEN Hate provides caregivers and concerned adults with the knowledge, tools and resources needed to keep youth safe from online messages that could incite acts of hate-based violence.

Adults don’t need to be tech gurus to keep youth safe online. They simply need to have a basic understanding of the problem, create open lines of communication and know where to go for support.

SCREEN Hate helps adults better understand the problem by providing information on the top 11 platforms where hate is most prevalent. By knowing where youth may find hate online and what it might look like, adults are prepared to intervene early and help minimize youth’s exposure.

Adults looking to dive deeper into topics such as digital literacy, youth resilience programs and school safety procedures can find these and more on SCREEN Hate’s resource hub.

Knowing where hateful rhetoric can be found is only half the battle. Concerned adults also need to talk openly with youth about their online activities. Teens and young adults may avoid telling adults about hate they see on their screens because they are afraid of losing social media or gaming privileges.

When youth do tell an adult about harmful activities online, it is usually because they already have established open dialogue on the topic. SCREEN Hate’s conversation starters and tips can help adults create a safe space where youth can speak freely.

It is important to note that most teens and young adults who engage with hate online will never commit an act of violence. However, adults should always seek help promptly if a young person shows signs of concerning or unusual behavior, whether online or offline.

Oftentimes, adults won’t reach out for help because they don’t know where to go. SCREEN Hate links to a nationwide directory of organizations and mental and behavioral health professionals who specialize in addressing hate and extremism. Seeking help early is the best way to support youth in crisis and keep them safe.

By learning more about where hate lives online, how to build open lines of communication, and where to turn for support, adults can help youth better navigate the world on their screen and prevent them from engaging in hate-based violence.

We must each do our part in keeping youth healthy and safe. Their lives may depend on it.

Brette Steele is senior director of the McCain Institute’s Preventing Targeted Violence Program. Rachel Hunkler is senior program manager of the McCain Institute’s Preventing Targeted Violence Program.

SCREEN Hate is made possible through funding from the Department of Homeland Security’s Center for Prevention Programs and Partnerships.

Publish Date
September 14, 2022