Joanna Schroeder started getting worried when her sons were coming to her with loaded questions.
"One of my kids said: If you can be trans and just decide what you are then how come you can't just decide to be a penguin?" said Schroeder, a writer and mother of two sons and a daughter, in an interview with NPR's Weekend Edition Saturday.
It may sound like a normal question a kid would ask, Schroeder admits. But she also knew that their curiosities didn't mesh with the values that she and her husband share with their children. "We've talked to our kids about LGBTQ community, we know trans people personally," she said.
As it turned out, her son's question had been inspired by a meme he saw on Instagram. "I knew it was time to start looking at their social media use and figuring out what they were being exposed to," she said.
She grew increasingly disturbed as she went down the rabbit hole of Instagram's "Explore" page and clicked "related videos" on their YouTube accounts. What she saw was an inundation of memes strewn with racist, sexist, homophobic and anti-Semitic jokes shared by other users.
What she found led her to forge a troubling theory about how content disseminated online by extremists can radicalize white teenage boys — and how parents can prepare to handle it — captured in a now-viral tweet thread that took off this week.
"Social media and vloggers are actively laying groundwork in white teens to turn them into alt-right/white supremacists," she wrote on Tuesday. "It's a system I believe is purposefully created to disillusion white boys away from progressive/liberal perspectives."
Terror attacks carried out by white extremists are on the rise as social media fosters the spread of their radical ideologies. Last year, white supremacists were responsible for the majority of the 50 documented extremist killings in the United States, according to data from The Anti-Defamation League, an increase from the 37 extremist-linked murders in 2017.
Schroeder has become determined to prevent her young boys from being groomed by radical messaging through these online pathways. But she says it was important to not approach her kids about the topic from a place of shaming. "They're kids and we can't expect them to automatically be able to detect propaganda when it's being presented to them," she said.
And shame, as she noted on Twitter, is the same tactic used to recruit young men to extremist groups. When kids are castigated for sharing these memes with teachers and parents — which often carry themes criticizing oversensitivity and political correctness — they become even more susceptible to their influence, she says.
"The boys [are] consuming media with the 'people are too sensitive' and 'you can't say anything anymore!' themes," Schroeder tweeted. "For these boys, this will ring true — they're getting in trouble for 'nothing.' This narrative allows boys to shed the shame — replacing it w/anger."
To prevent kids from shutting you out, get curious she says. Meet them where they are. "Instead we inquired more: Where did you hear this? Where did you see this? Can you show me that?" she said. "When they showed us, the first thing we tried to do was say, 'I get why this seems funny on the surface. And I totally get why it's confusing.' "
Schroeder started talking to her sons, now 11 and 14, about the hate they were encountering online this past year. Laying that groundwork early, when they're younger and more open, she said, may help them think more critically about the media they consume later.
"I hope that we were able to build with our kids a foundation where they believe that when we say something is not great, maybe they disobey but deep inside there's a little voice that's going to say to them: you know, I should question why this seems so funny and yet I feel like I have to keep it a secret."
Schroeder isn't worried about white male youth themselves, she said, calling this generation "the most open-hearted potentially kindest critical thinking loving group of boys that I've ever seen," she said.
She's worried about how propaganda is being spread online — by weaponizing that benevolence.
NPR's Ian Stewart and Barrie Hardymon produced and edited this story for broadcast.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Do you have white teenage sons? Listen up. So begins a thread on Twitter this week by Joanna Schroeder that continues, quote, "social media and vloggers are actively laying groundwork in white teens to turn them into alt-right white supremacists."
Joanna Schroeder is a writer and mother of three in Southern California and joins us now. Thank you for being with us.
JOANNA SCHROEDER: Thank you for having me, Scott.
SIMON: You have, I gather, two sons and a daughter. What did you notice online?
SCHROEDER: You know, I noticed that the more time my kids spent on YouTube and on social media, especially Instagram, the more they were raising questions that showed me that they were being exposed to some extreme right-wing propaganda.
SIMON: Well, like what specifically?
SCHROEDER: So for instance, my son came to me, and he asked, why is it that white people can't borrow black people's culture but black people can steal from white people culture? And he also asked questions about transgender folks that seemed like they came from places other than us. We've talked to our kids about LGBTQ community. We know trans people personally. And so one of my kids said, if you can be trans and just decide what you are, then how come you can't just decide to be a penguin? Which sounds kind of like a normal kid question, but I also wanted to know where is this coming from?
SCHROEDER: And when one of my sons answered, well, I saw a meme on Instagram, I knew it was time to start looking at their social media use and figuring out what they were being exposed to.
SIMON: So what did you notice?
SCHROEDER: So, you know, the way I use Instagram is I look at my news feed and I see pictures of my friends' babies and my mom's vacation. The way they use Instagram is so different. They switch over to their Explore screen, and they see photos and memes that are related to the things they've been searching and the things they've been liking and watching of their friends. So what I noticed was there was a lot of joke memes that were about Nazis or Hitler or about, you know, feminazis.
And then when I started looking at their YouTube use, that's when I started to get more concerned. What I found was that my kids were looking at, you know, how to build a certain thing in Minecraft or what was happening in Fortnite, but what was being suggested over to the right were videos by political vloggers. And they frame their sort of right-wing propaganda as jokes and funny and, you know, ha, ha, ha, this about feminists. The more the kids watch that suggested video, the more extremist the videos that are suggested to them become.
SIMON: I have to ask. I mean, did you say to your kids, show this to us, tell us what your - show us what you're seeing?
SCHROEDER: Yeah, we did. We - the first thing we wanted to make sure was that we didn't approach it with any shaming because they're kids. And we can't expect them to automatically be able to detect propaganda when it's being presented to them. But beyond that, I think when you start to mock or roll your eyes or be like, that's garbage, that's trash, your kids shut you out.
So instead, we inquired more. Where did you hear this? Where did you see this? Can you show me that? And when they showed us, I - the first thing we tried to do was say, I get why this seems funny on the surface, and I totally get why it's confusing. And they were also younger at the time, so they were probably a little more open than a kid would be at 16 or 17.
SIMON: Well, you anticipate one of my questions as you talk about as youngsters age. I mean, don't teens manage to find a way to evade the best parental advice in any case?
SCHROEDER: Oh, yeah, for sure. I mean, what I hoped that we were able to build with our kids from when they were young is a foundation where they believe that when we say something is not great, maybe they disobey, but deep inside there's a little voice that's going to say to them, you know, I should question this. I should question why this seems so, you know, funny and, yet, I feel like I have to keep it a secret. But, you know, we have had parental filters on our computers and on our media. As the kids got older, we realized pretty much every kid can evade any filter.
SIMON: What about the girls in your sons' classes?
SCHROEDER: When a friend of mine pointed out that her daughter was being targeted by boys at school using a lot of these kinds of memes and words that they were learning from these extremists, I was devastated. And she told me her daughter was getting images of guns in her direct messages and, you're a feminazi and feminazis are - should be eliminated from this Earth. And to a 13-year-old girl, it's really scary.
SIMON: As a writer, have you figured out why some people find this stuff appealing?
SCHROEDER: Yeah. I think there's a vulnerable group of boys, and even men, in society that - and I don't know who the forces are online. I don't know if it's malevolent media or just vloggers that want more views, but they've learned that they can target these men and boys. With men, I learned it's a lot of men who are male survivors of sexual assault or men who've been disenfranchised from their economic opportunities, divorced men. These communities target those men and their willingness to believe that society is out to get white men, their willingness to believe that women are all money-grabbing social climbers.
And with boys, I do think neurodivergent boys are being targeted, kids who may have learning difficulties, kids who have - are on the autism spectrum. But it's not just those boys. I think at this age, they're trying to figure out where they fit. They're insecure. They feel like girls have it all. Girls are happy and pretty, and white men are the enemies. And so these right-wing groups are tapping into that shame and feeding it to try and propagandize to them.
SIMON: How does this make you feel about boys these days?
SCHROEDER: You know, I worry for all of our kids, the way that, you know, propaganda is being spread online. But what I've noticed about boys of this generation is that they're also the most open-hearted, potentially kindest, critical thinking, loving, group of boys that I've ever seen. They hug other people's moms. They high-five and hug each other. And I think the potential for real greatness is there with our boys.
SIMON: Joanna Schroeder, writer and a mother in Southern California. Thank you so much.
SCHROEDER: Thank you so much for having me.
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