As the world takes its turn towards an increasingly digitalised reality characterised side by side with commodity-centric, consumerist behaviour, social maladies that include but are not limited to instability in interpersonal relationships, addictive behaviour, criminality, self-destructive behaviour and other mental health issues within young generations come to the forefront. Indeed, youth vulnerability has become a core area of discussion globally.
Bangladesh is not new to religious violence, with tragic incidents such as the Holey Artisan and Sholakia attack still fresh in our memories. A number of terrorist organizations have shown disastrous consequences for the nation, and many still remain active.
Methods of recruitment and ideology proliferation, however, have seen shifts from offline mechanisms to online means as the country progresses and violent extremists adopt tactics that suit their needs.
Numerous recruits of terrorist organisations have expressed how materials online, social networking sites and online engagement with terrorist members facilitated their path towards a violently extreme ideology and eventually membership into the terrorist organizations.
To understand such behaviour better, we need to assess adolescence and an individual’s journey into adulthood: a crucial time when people develop a sense of who they are and what their motivations constitute. To explain how youth are more vulnerable, I will first briefly reflect on the process of healthy identity formation and then move on to explaining how that process is disrupted, or experienced differently, in a world of virtual realities.
As adolescents transition into adulthood, stability is sought through the pursuit of social roles and identities as youth explore who they are as people, their goals, strengths and shortcomings. As they transition, they form attachments with peers, guardians, role models or those who provide care (Erikson, 1968) through interaction within the family, schools, peer groups and other social institutions. There is a need for coherence in the identities being formed as well as a sense of validation, assertion and establishment of those identities from other people for the formation of healthy self-esteem that lead to confidence (Buckingham, 2008).
When there is an absence of the above, however, youth may experience intensive role confusion as they unsuccessfully transition, suffering from lower ego strength and self-esteem. Vulnerability may stem from a sense of uncertainty and they may also be quicker to react aggressively when the identity formed is contested. Such failure to develop a healthy sense of self and ego identity thus may also render youth more intolerant.
In today’s era of globalization and virtual realities, youth have more fragmented and uncertain realities. There is little space to be curious, interact with various groups, find a healthy sense of attachment and develop a healthy sense of self. Youth today are also continuously exposed to a plethora of narratives, options, and interpretations on internet platforms. With increasing emphasis on the need for individuality in a society characterized by high risk and insecurity, youth are seen experiencing immense emotional stress as they develop fluid identities.
Left vulnerable with fractured egos, these youth increasingly depend on virtual realities for a sense of belonging, social membership and collectivity. Their motivations, roles, opinions and how they attach meanings to social events are now influenced more by online interactions on internet platforms. What kind of platforms and online networks they come to depend on is where the risk lies.
Opinions on global affairs, politics, events and other social phenomena are interpreted based on narratives provided by members of terrorist networks who prey on the vulnerability of the youth online. Content on the mass media and online is also used to paint black-and-white, simplistic narratives of selected communities that the youth identify with being persecuted. With instances of fractured egos, it should come as no surprise when we see how easily some people turn aggressive when there is a perceived sense of threat to their identities. So, would it be fair to say though that content on the internet should be strictly regulated?
While measures are necessary to reduce content that promotes religious discrimination, hate speech towards selected groups and content that calls for violence to be inflicted towards others, it should be understood that the internet is not a causal factor of violent extremism, even though it does facilitate the process for the availability and proliferation of violent and extreme ideologies, which are only clicks away. Vulnerability within youth stems from deeper issues of social structures that alienate and institutions that are failing to assist in the development of healthy egos and identities, which should be the focus of stakeholders working towards societies that ensure the protection of all communities regardless of differences in religion, gender, and political ideology.
Lecturer, Department of Criminology
University of Dhaka