Updated 15 April 2015

What makes teenagers run away to join ISIS?

CyberShrink explores what may make teenagers (usually girls from western countries) want to join the ranks of ISIS.


Over the last few months there have been a number of media reports about teens running away from their homes to join the terrorist group ISIS. 

In Britain, a trio of girls upped and left home, travelling via Turkey into ultra-fundamentalist regions of Syria, followed by teens from other parts of Europe, and even Cape Town. But, strangely, there has been a notable lack of any useful conclusions or actions being taken to prevent or discourage this kind of action.

There’s been some uninspired speculation about why they do it. Much has been written, but little has been said. No-one has apparently been able to properly interview these troubled kids. The results of police investigations into their departures may perhaps have been revealing, but nothing has been shared with the public. I also doubt whether any expert psychological studies have been made to find out what this aberrant behaviour is all about.   

Family backgrounds

We don’t know enough about these kids' families, and what we have heard has not been convincing or credible.

Family members and relatives have expressed surprise and amazement and tended to blame everyone except themselves for what happened, and were especially petulant about the failure of the police and governmental authorities to prevent the kids from leaving the country. 

This is of course nonsense. Imagine how monstrously invasive policing would need to be, how wholly lacking in personal privacy we would all have to be, for anyone in authority to be constantly aware of what every child in the country is doing at all times.

Read: Tips for a happier family

These families are probable also extremely uncomfortable about the question why their children would want to leave their homes for an unfamiliar and dangerous war zone. Why do they find their relationships with parents and other relatives less satisfying than a fantasy relationship with terrorists? 

I have an uneasy feeling that, confounded by political correctness and an overriding desire not to upset parents, relatives and friends, these highly relevant questions are not being asked.

'Grooming' on the internet

There’s been some belated recognition of the dangers of "grooming", by which children are courted and seduced, in person or online, in preparation for sexual abuse by predators. But there’s been almost no recognition of political, pseudo-religious grooming intended to lure children into supporting terrorist and similar causes, let alone serious attempts to deal with it.

It is abusive neglect, in my view, for parents to allow minors unfiltered, unsupervised internet access. It isn’t difficult for parents to monitor what their children do online. The excuse that some parents offer that they don’t understand the internet or computers just doesn't wash. Parents have a responsibility to make sure they can understand and monitor any technology they allow their children to use. 

Read: US teens hide online activity from parents

Whatever happened to teaching kids about "stranger danger", to be cautious about trusting people they encounter? If you warn your child about getting into a car with a smiling stranger, why would you allow them to chat with strangers online? 

An authoritarian upbringing, which emphasises unquestioning obedience, may lead to rebellion, but may also make children more vulnerable to uncritical acceptance of grooming by fundamentalists.

Rigid parents may assume that they have so effectively exerted their authority over their children that no further precautions are needed. In fact their children will usually simply grow more skilled at evading supervision and making their activities invisible to the family – especially if they want to enjoy a "normal" life among other young people.

Imposing strict rules on children, rather than encouraging them to learn to appreciate the good sense of such precautions, and to adopt similar rules within their own values, is not a way to safeguard them. Too easily they learn to elude, to hide, and to simulate obedience. Nothing safeguards children better than understanding the dangers they may face in life.

Read: Teens are sharing more online

Teenagers typically rebel against their elders, and we’ve all seen youngsters rebel against strictly traditional families by becoming hyper-liberal and promiscuous, sexually and in other ways. More recently, we’ve seen the children of very liberal parents rebel by becoming extremely conservative. The children of parents who have become assimilated into global culture may rebel by moving towards strict Islamism.

Skipping the country seems all too easy! 

What amazes me is the ease with which young teenagers apparently manage to get and keep a passport without their parents’ consent or involvement. Parents might help their children obtain a passport, perhaps for a family holiday abroad, but wouldn't they lock it up with other important papers when not in use? And what about visas, needed to enter many countries? Are they really issued that easily to children?

How do young teens get their hands on enough money to pay for flights to distant lands without their parents being involved? In the British example there was the possibility that the girls may have stolen and sold family jewels. How did the parents really not notice the missing jewels or valuable items, or report their theft to the police? Who would have bought the stolen jewellery?

Read: Discipline tough for parents

How would they have been able to buy international air tickets, paying cash, without anyone challenging them or parental consent? If they didn’t pay in cash, whose credit cards would they have used? Perhaps they bought the tickets online. It can't be this easy – we must be missing something here.

And if it is so easy to obtain international air tickets, shouldn’t it be made more difficult?  

The British girls were also apparently able to pack their bags and remove them from their homes without anyone noticing or asking questions? Wouldn't this be rather difficult in any normal household?  

And, are children, travelling unsupervised, really allowed to check-in and fly to distant lands without any questions being asked by airlines? If this is the case, it's a disaster waiting to happen. If normal security systems ask whether I packed my own bag and require me to walk through metal detectors, how can they be so laissez-faire about kids travelling without adult supervision? 

How kids' minds work

Teenagers' minds are in turmoil and are occupied by a lot more than sex, drugs and rock and roll. They’re vulnerable and insecure and prone to developing fanatical levels of devotion to a cause, and to hero-worship idols. They readily become besotted with pop stars and celebrities that are marketed for their consumption, screaming and weeping with joy at concerts, becoming incoherent and dissociated. When calm, they may be quite rational, but, expertly manipulated, they can be steered in any direction. 

Most normal adults find bloodthirsty jihadists repulsive, but unlike other terrorist groups, ISIS has major skills in IT, and use the media to manipulate the young, naïve and stupid among us. Like a popular boy band ISIS may even be regarded as "cool" by certain susceptible and/or targeted teenagers. 

Those who travel, like moths towards the Eastern flame, often do so in pairs or trios. Like all back-up singers, they function in small groups, all singing the same song, adding "Doo-Wops" to the jihadi songs. Their group reinforces their shared fantasies and delusions, and avoids any common sense. 

When they reach the terror territories, they're not of much practical use, other than as cannon-fodder, or bearers of human bomb vests. Or maybe they're used to whet jihadis' appetite for the 72 virgins awaiting them in paradise.

Read more:

Get on better with my family

A healthy teenager is a happy teenager

The legacy of Osama bin Laden

Image: Teenagers using the internet from Shutterstock

Professor MA Simpson is Health24's CyberShrink. A South African psychiatrist, he qualified in medicine and in psychiatry in Britain. He has been a senior academic, researcher, and Professor in several countries. Read more of his columns.




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