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The Kids Are Not OK: The Rise of the Far-Right in British teenagers

Updated: May 23

The Internet is one of the greatest inventions of all time, but it's double-edged. It has the power to unite people across the world against extremism. But hardline zealots and brazen opportunists can use it as a tool to stream propaganda to an increasingly digitalised and isolated global audience, a trend only worsened by the COVID-19 lockdowns.

One of the most vulnerable groups is young people, particularly young men. In 2019, the number of individuals arrested for terror-related activities who were under 18 was 4%. By 2022, that number had risen to 20%. This rise is not contained to the United Kingdom's far-right. Support has also swelled for Islamist terrorism, Tankies (far-left Stalin apologists) and myriad other ideologies anathema to liberal democracy. 

It is nevertheless the far-right that has seen the biggest increase in recent years, with three-quarters of children arrested on suspicion of terror offences being far-right extremists. In 2015, under-24s accounted for less than 20% of extreme right-wing terrorism arrests. In 2020 they accounted for nearly 60 per cent. By 2021, 19 out of 20 under-18s arrested for terrorism offences were linked to an extreme right-wing ideology. The UK's youngest-known terror offender was just 13 when he committed his first offence. He was sentenced in February 2021 for recruiting members on behalf of a neo-Nazi group. 

Much of this indoctrination occurs online, and parents are often unaware that their children are slowly slipping into the cesspool that is fascism. Preventative measures are complicated by the decentralised nature of far-right communities.

Gaming forums, private chatrooms, and online leaflets or "study guides" for making bombs and promoting Holocaust denial/support are among the platforms and tactics used to introduce teenagers to racist, white supremacist, fascist, neo-Nazi, White Genocide conspiracies and incel ideas. The number of right-wing extremists increased most rapidly during the COVID-19 pandemic as people, especially teenagers and young adults, became more isolated and spent more time online. The isolation from core networks, whether it be from sports, societies, teachers or family members, meant that the right-wing extremist views they were encountering online were going unchallenged. 

But it's not just extremist websites that promote these theories. The anti-immigrant and nativist ideas spread by the Brexit campaign and later Tory governments are in large part to blame for the rise of right-wing extremism as they help introduce such ideas to the mainstream. Less extreme forms of the "Cultural Marxist" conspiracy (a far-right anti-Semitic conspiracy first coined in Nazi Germany as Cultural Bolshevism) and the Great Replacement "theory" are repeated in mainstream right-wing news outlets and by politicians (including Suella Braverman) on both sides of the Atlantic.  

Social media has a lot to answer for, as most kids are introduced to these ideologies through these platforms before moving on to more extreme corners of cyberspace. These companies are doing a terrible job of combating far-right talking points – you only have to look at the comments on any advert featuring a non-white model to disprove the myth that Britain doesn't have a problem with racism. The same, alas, holds for women's issues. 

As Helen Lewis remarked more than a decade ago, "the comments on any article about feminism justify feminism". I do think that social media companies are trying to combat extremist ideologies but should put in more effort and face up to their societal responsibility by flagging and removing extremist content. However, we cannot trust these companies to police themselves as they will always foster the spread of polarising content as that is what gets clicks, so fair legislation that removes and bans posts that violate the UN's definition of hate speech should be heavily encouraged – extremism is a global issue which requires global solutions. 

Extremism, in whatever form it takes, preys on the social isolation and feelings of inadequacy that plague many teenagers. It offers a sense of purpose, a feeling of community and identity. This is why youth centres are an effective way to prevent extremism in young people. Free, or at least affordable, sports and recreational activities for young people have been proven to help curb extremist ideologies by providing a space that promotes resilience, empowerment, education, and social inclusion. To the government's credit, schools are providing lessons on tackling extremism. Education and strong communities are the best weapon we have against extremism.

If you are concerned that someone you care about is being radicalised, please visit or call the confidential Prevent advice line on 0800 011 3764.

Image: Andi Graf

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