The Guardian view on children and the far-right web: schools need help | Editorial

The number of people known to be involved in far-right extremism in Britain remains very small. But as this week’s Guardian investigation has shown, there is reason to be concerned about the age at which a minority of boys are being influenced online by far-right views, including racism and misogyny. In January, a 13-year-old from Darlington became the youngest person to be convicted of terrorism offences. Teachers and headteachers are struggling to deal with the kinds of language and attitudes that pupils come across on their devices and then bring into classrooms.

Given that 19 out of 20 children arrested last year for terrorism offences were linked to extreme rightwing ideology, the suggestion made in a leaked draft of William Shawcross’s review of the Prevent programme that far-right activists have received disproportionate attention compared with Islamists seems highly questionable – at least with regard to young people. When the review is finalised it should address teachers’ concerns. These relate to the tools available to tackle a growing problem, as well as the problem itself. Safeguarding training for education professionals, youth workers and others must extend to recognising where pupils have been harmed by material seen or read online. These adults need the confidence and knowledge to engage with and challenge young people – mostly teenagers – when they display such influences.

The online safety bill has a crucial role. For too long children have been unprotected in virtual spaces. Whatever happens when the bill returns to parliament in the autumn, new rules compelling social platforms to ensure children do not encounter specified forms of inappropriate content, and obliging them to tell Ofcom how they will achieve this, should receive cross-party support. Businesses must be held accountable for the part algorithms can play in radicalisation of various kinds, by amplifying what may begin as a user’s curiosity – expressed in a search term – into a preoccupation or fixation.

This whole terrain remains complex and contested. Analysing the connections between, for example, the widespread availability of violent internet pornography and misogynistic attitudes “in real life” is not a straightforward task. While concerns around far-right extremism do of course include the potential for such ideas to be acted out, for example in violent attacks on minorities, it is not possible to draw a simple line between online and offline. Particularly in the lives of young people who have grown up with the internet, the two are intermingled.

In the words of the radicalisation expert Prof Paul Jackson, the reality today is “much more messy” than models of far-right culture and organisation based on 20th-century events. The proliferation of highly discriminatory language and behaviour across the digital landscape must not be conflated with the threat of terrorism. But nor should anyone be blase about its impact – particularly on the minority of boys who are most susceptible. Shielding young people from toxic ideologies and conspiracy theories is an urgent safeguarding issue. If we are to make any progress, well-informed teachers and other adults will be needed alongside regulatory and technological changes.