Since its invention in 1989, the web has opened avenues of communication for connected communities and individuals around the world.
While it has brought positive changes by bringing people together and encouraging conversations around important issues, it has also exposed us to new dangers. The web is home to rapidly developing technologies, which – like all technologies – can be misused by people with malicious or predatory agendas to target the vulnerable. 'Radicalisation' involves a group or individual spreading or inciting extremist ideas online, and the practice of manipulating someone to gain their trust for the purposes of sexual abuse has become known as 'grooming'.
The UK Safer Internet Centre is a partnership of three leading organisations working to make the web safer. Childnet International, Internet Watch Foundation and SWGfL teamed up to 'promote the safe and responsible use of technology for young people'. We spoke to David Wright, the director of the UK Safer Internet Centre, and his team at South West Grid for Learning (SWGfL), about who is at risk from grooming and radicalisation, what to look out for, and the ways in which we can all help to make the web a safer space for everyone.
What is radicalisation and why does it happen?
The Police National Legal Database, on their Ask the Police website, defines radicalisation as 'the process whereby an individual adopts extreme religious, social or political ideals'.
Radicalisation usually happens when two conditions are present. Firstly, there has to be a person or group that holds a specific point of view and wants to recruit people to support them or take action on their behalf.
Secondly, the individuals being targeted will more often than not share common characteristics or circumstances. There have been many studies around this, but one of the more consistent factors is that the individual has some form of vulnerability, such as a mental illness or unmet psychological needs for belonging or status, that can be exploited and used by those trying to radicalise them.
What is 'online grooming' and would you say it follows a similar pattern to radicalisation?
Children’s charity the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) defines grooming as 'when someone builds an emotional connection with a child to gain their trust for the purposes of sexual abuse, sexual exploitation or trafficking'.
While the drivers and objectives are different, the actual process is broadly similar to radicalisation, with the exploitation of a person’s vulnerability usually being the critical factor. Those who are targeted are often offered something ideological, such as an eternal spiritual reward, or sometimes something physical, such as an economic incentive, that will make them 'feel better' about themselves or their situation.
Who is most at risk of becoming a target?
Anyone can be at risk. Age, social standing and education do not necessarily matter as much as we previously thought, and we have seen all kinds of people become radicalised, from young men and women with learning difficulties to adults in well-respected professions. What is clear is that, the more vulnerable the person, the easier it is to influence their way of thinking.
How is the web being used to groom and radicalise people?
There is no real offline world anymore. We don’t go online, we are online. Technology is now an extension of almost everything we do, and that has given people who want to radicalise and groom others an avenue for communication and a level of influence that was not present before.
It has also provided perpetrators with unique advantages: they can contact a target any time of day or night, and stream propaganda directly to them. Ideas can now be spread at the touch of a button and with very little technical knowledge. A smartphone and a social media platform are all that is required to start to propagate dangerous ideas and information with zero cost.
People who groom and radicalise also use the anonymity of the web as a layer of protection to avoid detection. The added ability to encrypt communication can make law enforcement extremely difficult.
How has the rise of social media contributed to the risk?
The online world has also made it so much easier to identify those who could be potentially influenced and radicalised. Social media platforms are full of groups of people looking for help and support, and those looking to exploit this can easily join these groups and befriend a vulnerable person.
Offers of support, friendship and belonging are all used to gain influence and control, so it’s important to be alert. Despite the best efforts of social media providers and platforms, the sheer volume of web traffic means that questionable content can be uploaded and distributed for a considerable length
How would I know that someone is being groomed or radicalised? What are the warning signs?
Lots of research has been undertaken in this area, and there is no definitive list of clues or signs. A change in the person’s behaviour is likely – some things to look out for include (but are not limited to): isolating themselves from family and friends; becoming secretive and not wanting to talk or discuss their views; closing computers down when others are around; refusing to say who they are talking to; using technology such as anonymous browsing to hide their activity; and sudden changes in mood, such as becoming angry or disrespectful.
Of course, none of these behaviours necessarily mean someone is being radicalised and, when displayed in children, could be a symptom of bullying or other emotional issues.
What should I do if someone I know is talking to an unsafe person?
It is important to reassure the person you are concerned for that they can trust you and that you are there to listen and support them. When we speak to children we talk about finding a 'trusted adult'. Trusted doesn't necessarily mean a police officer or a teacher, but preferably someone whom that person can talk to in a free and uninhibited way – someone who can support them and guide them.
Parents want nothing but the best for their children, but sometimes they can’t be that 'trusted adult'. Children don't want to let their parents down, or they may worry that they might be punished in some way – perhaps by having their internet access cut off – and so will sometimes not confide in their parents.
Many of us – and particularly young people – use the internet every day. The risk of losing that connectivity can be a real barrier to them coming forward and telling someone what is happening to them.
When a child discloses to you that they are in potential danger, or that something has already happened to them, the natural reaction is to want to solve the situation immediately. This can sometimes lead to parents and guardians taking phones, computers and access privileges away. In doing this, we are in effect punishing the child for having the confidence to come and talk to us about what is going on.
It’s easier said than done, but the key is to remain calm, listen to the child and understand what has happened, or is happening, to them. Once all the facts are known, you can together work out how you are going to deal with the situation.
Trust is also crucial when it comes to helping adults – although it can be more difficult to cultivate. Signposting people to counselling and support groups, where they can talk openly and honestly without judgement, can be an important first step.
What can I do to prevent someone from being groomed or radicalised?
It all starts with education. From an early age, people need to be equipped with the skills and confidence to engage with the digital world safely, and to know where to go for help when things go wrong.
This involves being willing to tackle and embrace difficult conversations appropriate to different age groups. In the same way that we educate children in maths, English and science, we need to talk about diversity, sexuality, religion and politics in schools. We need to empower young people, so when someone challenges their way of thinking, they can fall back on their own knowledge, rather than being led down a path because they know no different.
It’s also important that we keep up to date with technology and understand how it changes. All too often we hear parents say, 'I don't understand this, it's all new to me.' It can be challenging to keep up to date, but it is our responsibility as parents and guardians to ensure we do. We also need to educate ourselves about the online world and the issues that children, young people and vulnerable adults may be faced with online.
That can be as simple as spending time with a young person and playing and using some of the games and social media platforms they love. Getting to know games like Fortnite or Fifa, and platforms like Instagram and Snapchat, may not be the most appealing prospect, but by engaging with a child, we will not only begin to understand what they are doing online and the potential dangers, but more importantly we can start to build their trust.
The expression 'digital natives and digital immigrants' was coined in 2001 by writer Marc Prensky in his 2001 article entitled Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants to illustrate the contrast between how children and adults typically use and understand technology. However, it is important to remember that, while children may be fearless when it comes to technology, they are still children and lack the cognitive ability to appreciate risk. Adults should not confuse a child’s apparent 'confidence' with an innate 'capability'. It's important for parents and guardians to find ways to build trust with their child, so that they feel safe to turn to an adult if they are in trouble or need help.
Are there any resources available to help people stay safe online?
There are resources and websites available that can help in all manner of situations, and they are a great way to stay in the loop.
Common Sense Media’s website reviews games, books, films and music and all sorts of digital content. Children and young people adopt new games and social media platforms rapidly, and this resource is a fantastic way to keep up to date.
Our resource, the UK Safer Internet Centre, combines three of the best online safety charities under one roof. Our website is packed with tips and hints, which are especially useful for professionals working with children and young people. The UK Safer Internet Centre is one of the 31 centres across Europe that make up the Insafe network.
Educate Against Hate is a website specially designed to empower professionals working with children and young people around radicalisation. It has a hub for school and parents with lots of practical advice.
Understanding what digital skills children should have is important and UKCIS released a competency framework (Education in a Connected World) in 2018 that describes these for five to eighteen-year-olds.
Lastly, the NSPCC website also has some great articles and advice on everything from online bullying to grooming and radicalisation of young people.