By now, if you are a parent you already know that the Internet is not a totally trustworthy babysitting service for your kids when they are home alone and you are at work or out looking for work.
They already know and have concerns about threats ranging from online sexual predators to identity theft.
And when it comes to schoolwork many students have learned the painful lesson that you cannot create a great report by merely cutting and pasting Google search results into the final version of your term paper. Those “flat earth society” websites may look authoritative to a 12 year-old, but if they make it into your teen's report as an authoritative source, look for a “D” or worse from her Science teacher.
Well parents, I am here to raise another red flag: online bigots are targeting your kids.
How do I know this? Because I head up a project at the Simon Wiesenthal Center on digital terrorism and hate. For the past 14 years we have been tracking how extremist groups leverage the most powerful marketing tool in the history of humankind—The Internet.
In 1995, at the time of the Oklahoma City bombing, there was one hate site www.stormfront.org. In our just released 2012 report, we are tracking some 15,000 problematic websites, newsgroups, forums, YouTube and Facebook postings and hate games. Even worse, in an online world where any video or Facebook page can go viral the actual numbers of these webites are probably much, much higher.
The current online trends in hate are of course of great concern to the experts we interact with at the Department of Homeland Security, various government intelligence agencies and local hate crimes units. But they should also be of great concern to every American.
Now is the time for every parent who pays the monthly fees for their kids' digital access to get involved in talking with their kids about hate online. That’s because it is our kids who are the main targets of online bigotry and it is our kids who are seen as potential recruits for hate groups and those supporting and abetting terrorism.
Here's why: for the bad guys, the Internet is a win-win-win proposition. They can go online to target minorities, immigrants, and members of religious faiths who pray to G-d differently, to denigrate people of different sexual orientations.
In many cases what happens online can go far beyond cyber-bullying and intimidation to dehumanization and promotion of violence. There are online hate games where to “win,” you shoot down a "wetback" crossing the Rio Grande, destroy a mosque going up in Europe, gas a Turk in Germany, shoot down a religious Jew near Auschwitz death camp or take a shotgun to a gay person.
Beyond denigrating their enemies in the ‘virtual world,’ Internet bigots and terrorists also seek out, empower and sometimes even train the "Lone Wolf" recruits -- those individuals with the “guts” to carry out deadly attacks on real-life enemies.
The recent horrific shootings in Toulouse, France, the Fort Hood Massacre and the (thankfully) unsuccessful underwear bomber who almost brought down an airliner over Detroit on Christmas Day are just some examples of the growing menace of the Internet-fueled ‘Lone Wolf’ trend.
So what’s a parent to do? For some, Internet filters might help. But in a world where increasingly, every member of the household has their own cellphone or iPad, the best strategy may have little to do with technology:
Talk to your kids.
Ask them: to show you the hate games. They have surely seen some and probably played at least one: Be prepared for a serious discussion when junior says, “…but mom, the graphics were really cool!”
Invite them: to call you over to their mobile device the next time they see a hate site or a cool YouTube video that provides accurate step-by-step guidance to convert any cellphone into a detonator for a bomb.
Teach them: to paraphrase what they say in New York City if they see something, say something! Tell them silence is not an option and that they can actually make a difference! And if they can’t/won’t tell you -- have them e-mail the hate link to email@example.com. We’ll draw a straight line to the Internet companies, or to authorities, when appropriate.
Of course we would like to shield our children from the subcultures of hate. But it is never too young to stand up against bigotry. So unless you are prepared to pull the plug on the computer and hide the batteries to the cellphone, your best bet is to speak to your kids and empower them to make a difference.
As in the real world, we can never eliminate bigotry, but together we can strive to marginalize its corrosive and destructive reach.