Online radicalisation influences an “increasing concern” due to COVID-19

Children’s services are increasingly worried about online influences and influencers of radicalisation, made worse by children and young people spending even more time at home during the COVID-19 pandemic, new research for the Department for Education says.

28/06/21

Online radicalisation influences an “increasing concern” due to COVID-19

New research for the Department for Education (DfE) finds that online radicalisation influences are an increasing concern, with the COVID-19 pandemic increasing the risk to children.

Commissioned by the Department for Education (DfE) to update their understanding of how radicalisation is being addressed in children’s social care, the research found that online pathways to radicalisation were particularly associated with radicalisation to Extreme Right-Wing and mixed/unclear ideologies.

The research found that children and young people were increasingly accessing radical or extremist content online (including through the dark web), as well as being groomed or radicalised through online discussion forums. Social media platforms or online games were also found to be acting as introductory spaces for many children.

“There was also a sense that online influences had become more significant during the COVID-19 pandemic because children and young people were spending more time at home and online and because increased isolation exacerbated some of the underlying vulnerabilities that put children and young people at risk of radicalisation,” the report stated.

The report acknowledged, however, that face-to-face influences in the community continued to act as radicalising influencers for young people. In half of the local authorities surveyed, increases in radicalisation referrals were linked to international or local events, such as elections, referendums, and local activity by Extreme Right-Wing political parties.

Familial influences remained important in relation to Islamist extremist and extreme right-wing ideologies, with referrals sometimes triggered by the upcoming release of a family member convicted of a terrorism offence, or family members expressing extremist views during assessment.

Since the last major research into radicalisation and children’s social care four years ago, the number of radicalisation cases being referred has generally either increased or remained static, with practitioners suggesting that increased referrals were the result of better awareness by referrers or more effective referral pathways. Most areas in the research reported an increase in referrals relating to extreme right-wing or mixed/unclear ideologies, though Islamist extremism remained the primary ideology in some areas even where referrals in relation to other ideologies had increased.

The research also found evidence of closer links between vulnerability to radicalisation and vulnerability to other forms of exploitation which might involve grooming, such as child criminal exploitation (CCE) and child sexual exploitation (CSE).

Responses from practitioners found that many existing social work frameworks and practices can be applied in response to radicalisation. The research found that most of social care’s direct work with children and families in response to radicalisation draws primarily on the core skills, knowledge and approaches used by social workers in response to other forms of harm.

It was noted, however, that variation in social workers’ responses of dealing with cases of radicalisation “remains a challenge”. The primary reason for this variation was thought to be individual social workers’ confidence in dealing with issues determined by their experience of cases, their wider-ranging social work experience, and their understanding of how to apply processes and approaches in different contexts.

Specialist radicalisation or extremism roles within children’s social care were found to increase the “consistency and efficacy” of responses, however these only tended to be in place for areas with ‘priority status’ for Prevent – the Government’s strategy to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism.

As a result of the findings, the DfE is making several recommendations for children’s social care, including increasing social workers’ confidence to apply their core skills and knowledge to radicalisation responses, and integrating radicalisation in approaches to addressing other forms of exploitation.

They also recommend that local authorities establish specialist radicalisation/extremism roles within children’s social care to support information sharing and partnership working, and provide a single point of advice, guidance and coaching for social workers assigned to radicalisation cases.

“In areas with lower prevalence, it says a formalised post may not be necessary, but a more informal role (such as a Prevent Champion or a social worker with experience and/or interest in radicalisation and extremism) could be a useful source of advice and support,” the report said.

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