Teaching Our Children to Combat Digital Hate

The other night my stepson showed me the game he was playing on his laptop. It’s called Fortnite, and apparently this game is all the rage among our children. It lets them build teams with anyone who happens to communicate with them on this highly interactive platform.

The question we don’t ask quite enough is who are our children interacting with? Could these strangers have more on their agenda than partnering for a game?

Just the day before, the Simon Wiesenthal Center held a forum for middle school parents, demonstrating the growing trends of hate and pro-terror postings from extremists ranging from the alt-right to ISIS and including the local lone wolfs on social media platforms specifically targeting Generation Z. When an eighth-grade panelist raised a point about the expansion of offensive content now being brought into interactive gaming systems, there was a collective gasp from the parents and grandparents who see all too well the addiction to Xbox, Playstation, and other such devices.

While on this particular day we were working with the HAFTR Middle School in Lawrence, on Long Island, the results were identical when we recently held the same workshops with tenth graders at Frisch in Paramus and seventh graders at Moriah Englewood. (We are scheduled to do the same with the ninth grade at the Dwight Morrow High School in Englewood.)

Each year the Simon Wiesenthal Center unveils a heavily researched report card on digital terror and hate. We assign letter grades to each of the prominent social media platforms, evaluating their commitment to combating hate on their sites. What we have learned is that even when some online giants take hate speech seriously, they can never completely keep pace with the bigots. In other words, while we continue to expand filtering capabilities, we must collectively recognize that much in the way of anti-Semitism, racism, and bigotry will find its way through, despite our best intentions.

That means that a significant part of this fight must be carried by us — the parents, the schools, the communities, and yes, our elected officials. We must teach our children how to recognize online hate, terrorism, and bullying and to have the trust to communicate immediately with a trusted adult. They must describe what they experienced. They must learn to recognize the purposeful subtleties interspersed in what otherwise might be harmless material. They must learn how to feel empowered to fight back on those using bullying, harassment, and inferences of targeted negativity, and they must be ready for inevitably coming into contact with such content.

In the classroom workshops that the Simon Wiesenthal Center has created and begun to present in some of our local schools, we have trained middle school and high school students—who often are the main target of online extremists — to recognize the difference between legitimate debate and criticism and hate speech on social media. We no longer are surprised when seventh graders raise their hands when they are asked if they have experienced offensive content on their digital devices.

We need these young targets to become, in the words of Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the Wiesenthal Center associate dean who founded the digital terrorism and hate project 24 years ago, “not victims but our first responders.”

Today, it may be Fortnite. Tomorrow, it most assuredly will be something else. While as parents we all recognize the difficult battle we face in limiting our children’s time on their digital devices, and knowing that it is simply a part of life, we all must join in fighting back against those trying to negatively influence our kids.

We must empower our young people in how to recognize hate and teach them about the role they can play in combating it.

About the Author
Michael Cohen currently serves as Eastern Director of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Mr. Cohen additionally serves on the Englewood, NJ City Council where he was recently elected to his third term. Mr. Cohen has previously held senior staff positions on Capitol Hill and in NYC and NYS governments for over 15 years. Mr. Cohen has also served as Director of Political and Strategic Affairs for a top NY lobbying firm.