How To Talk To Kids About Extremism And Conspiracy Theories

Teachers and academics are worried about the extremist views being heard in UK schools.

As children settle in to the new school term, teachers and academics are worried about the views of some students. A study suggests the pandemic has exposed pupils to hateful ideologies, such as racism, homophobia, and conspiracy theories.

Researchers from University College London’s (UCL’s) Institute of Education spoke to 96 teachers in English schools about their pupils’ views.

The majority of teachers said they have heard pupils express far-right extremist views in their classroom, as well as “extremist views about women” or Islamophobia.

Nearly nine in 10 teachers have heard conspiracy theories being discussed by students – including the theory that American business magnate Bill Gates “controls people via microchips in Covid vaccines”. Teachers raised concerns that the issue has been “exacerbated by the pandemic and lockdowns,” with children spending more time online.

The report has been published ahead of the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks. It concludes that schools’ efforts to build resilience to extremism in young people are “highly varied” due to limited space in the curriculum, and in some cases their approach to the issue is “tokenistic”.

Academics at UCL said schools lack the resources and training to teach students how to reject or speak about these dangerous views, so what can parents do to help?

Looking at where these views are coming from is a good place to start. Psychologist Dr Tara Quinn-Crillo says social media has made it hard for children to navigate the information they come across. “The rise of the online generation and social media means that they are accessing many different platforms and also differing views on world issues,” Dr Quinn-Crillo tells HuffPost UK.

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She also believes the pandemic has contributed to more children accessing this information. “The pandemic has lead to many children having increased screen time at home and less interaction with peers/settings such as schools,” she says.

“Therefore it is likely there was increased risk of being online and exposed to platforms that encourage extreme views. In terms of conspiracy theories such as Covid conspiracy, the pandemic has exerted a huge impact on us, including the psychological impact.”

The UCL findings come after the boss of MI5 disclosed that agents are investigating teenagers as young as 13 who have been found to be linked to extreme right-wing terrorism.

In July, director-general Ken McCallum said that the presence of teenagers is a “rising trend in MI5’s counter-terrorism casework” and is becoming more so in extreme right-wing investigations.

Teachers said they don’t want to talk about issues related to extremism in the classroom as they’re scared they’ll approach the conversation incorrectly, especially with issues relating to race, the study found.

Dr Becky Taylor, from the UCL Centre for Teachers and Teaching Research, said: “This report shows that some schools fail to move beyond surface-level explorations of violence, extremism, and radicalisation; however, it is without doubt that schools can play an important role.”

Kamal Hanif, who is a trustee of the charity Since 9/11 and executive principal of Waverley Education Foundation in Birmingham, called the research “a wake-up call”.

“The findings of this study are particularly pertinent as we approach the 20th anniversary of 9/11,” he said. “Children in school today were not yet born when the attacks took place.”

So, what should we do when we hear children expressing these views?

The NSPCC guidance sets out signs to look for, such as isolating from family /friends, talking as if from a ‘script’, unwillingness to discuss their views, increased levels of anger and secretiveness,” Dr Quinn-Crillo says.

She adds that open and honest conversation is key, you shouldn’t be avoiding conversations like this. “Encourage them to share what they are looking at and talk about their opinions. Be careful not to scold, but instead encourage them to speak about how their opinion has been formed and introduce other possibilities,” she says.

“Set rules/boundaries around internet use and when and where they access it e.g. if they are alone in a bedroom it is harder to see what they are accessing. Obviously, older children/teenagers need privacy but encouraging them to talk about what they have read is a positive thing.”

Additionally, the NSPCC has guidance on supporting your children and how to begin to have discussions with them. Schools also provide sessions on managing online risk. Local authorities and safeguarding hubs all have policies to support parents and schools with identifying children at risk of exposure to extremist ideology.