If you have kids, chances are you’ve worried about their presence on social media.
Who are they talking to? What are they posting? Are they being bullied? Do they spend too much time on it? Do they realise their friends’ lives aren’t as good as they look on Instagram?
We asked five experts if social media is damaging to children and teens.
Four out of five experts said yes
The four experts who ultimately found social media is damaging said so for its negative effects on mental health, disturbances to sleep, cyberbullying, comparing themselves with others, privacy concerns, and body image.
However, they also conceded it can have positive effects in connecting young people with others, and living without it might even be more ostracising.
The dissident voice said it’s not social media itself that’s damaging, but how it’s used.
Here are their detailed responses:
If you have a “yes or no” health question you’d like posed to Five Experts, email your suggestion to: email@example.com
Karyn Healy is a researcher affiliated with the Parenting and Family Support Centre at The University of Queensland and a psychologist working with schools and families to address bullying. Karyn is co-author of a family intervention for children bullied at school. Karyn is a member of the Queensland Anti-Cyberbullying Committee, but not a spokesperson for this committee; this article presents only her own professional views.
We often remember childhood as a time when life seemed infinite and adventures in our backyard felt expansive, as if we were exploring other worlds.
Climbing a tree was its own adventure. You could discover what you were capable of, while also getting the chance to see the world from a different vantage point.
Of course, sometimes you’d fall. But that’s to be expected – there’s a risk in every journey of discovery.
Parents want their children to enjoy the same joys of childhood they look back on fondly, but many struggle with getting the balance right – how much freedom can you give while also making sure your child is safe?
We asked five experts – including a paediatric surgeon who operates on children who’ve fallen out of a tree – if it’s OK to let kids climb trees.
Five out of five experts said yes
Although, in every case, it’s a yes, but…
Here are their detailed responses:
If you have a “yes or no” education question you’d like posed to Five Experts, email your suggestion to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Disclosures: Shelby Laird is a member of the North American Association for Environmental Education as well as its local affiliate, Environmental Educators of North Carolina.
The body clock – also known as our circadian rhythm – controls when we sleep and wake.
Several environmental cues affect our body clock, the most common of which is the light-dark cycle. When it’s dark, our bodies produce more of the hormone melatonin, which helps bring on sleep. And when it’s light, our bodies produce less, so we feel more awake.
When daylight saving begins, children’s bodies aren’t getting the usual environmental signals to sleep at their regular time.
But a later bedtime means getting less sleep overall, which can impact on their concentration, memory, behaviour and ability to learn.
So, how do you plan for the daylight saving switchover?
1. Take a sleep health check
This is a good opportunity to look at how your child is sleeping and whether they’re getting enough sleep overall. Individual needs will vary but as a guide, here’s what you should aim for:
Most children wake themselves in the morning, or wake easily with a gentle prompt, if they’re getting enough good-quality sleep.
As well as the light-dark cycle, children’s circadian rhythms are synchronised with other environmental cues, such as timing around bath and dinner. A positive routine in the hour before bed creates consistency the body recognises, helping children wind down in preparation for sleep.
Bedtime routines work best when the atmosphere is calm and positive. They include a bath, brushing teeth and quiet play – like reading with you – some quiet chat time, and relaxing music.
Keeping quiet time consistent makes it easier to say goodnight and lights out. Doing a quick check on whether they’ve had a drink, been to the toilet and so on can help address things they might call out for later.
Gently reminding children what you expect and quiet praise for staying in bed helps too.
3. Keep regular sleep and wake times
Sticking to similar daily bedtimes and wake times keeps children’s circadian rhythms in a regular pattern.
It’s best to keep this routine during weekends and holidays – even though these are times when older children in particular are eager for later nights. This is worth remembering to avoid a double whammy of sleep disruption as daylight saving and the school holidays coincide.
If your child is not tiring until later, try making bedtime 15 minutes earlier each day until you reach your bedtime target.
4. Control the sleep environment
Darkening the room is an important cue to stimulate melatonin production. This can be challenging during daylight saving, depending on your home. Trying to block out light – say, with thicker curtains – is a good strategy. Keeping the amount of light in the room consistent will also make for better sleep.
Research suggests the blue light emitted by screens from digital devices might suppress melatonin and delay sleepiness. It’s advisable to turn screens off at least an hour before bed and to keep them out of the bedroom at night.
Temperature plays a role in priming children for sleep, as core body temperature decreases in sync with the body clock. So, check the room, bedding or clothing aren’t too hot. Between 18℃ and 21℃ is the ideal temperature range for a child’s bedroom.
5. Consider what happens during the day
Making sure your child gets plenty of natural daylight, especially in the morning, keeps them alert during the day and sleepy in the evening.
Daytime physical activity also makes children tired and ready for a good night’s sleep.
For children over five, keep naps early and short (20 minutes or less) because longer and later naps make night sleep harder.
For younger children, too little daytime sleep can make them overtired and therefore harder to settle into bed.
6. Focus on food and drink
Think about dinner timing because feeling hungry or full before bedtime can delay sleep by making children too alert or uncomfortable.
It’s also important to avoid caffeine in the late afternoon and evening. Caffeine is in chocolate, energy drinks, coffee, tea and cola.
Countries around the world, including Australia, are using different ways to get parents to vaccinate their children.
Our new research, published this week in the journal Milbank Quarterly, looks at diverse mandatory vaccination policies across the world. We explore whether different countries mandate many vaccines, or just a few; if there are sanctions for not vaccinating, such as fines; and how easy it is for parents to get out of vaccinating.
This is part of ongoing research to see what Australia could learn from other countries’ attempts to increase childhood vaccination rates.
Early evidence from Italy, France, California and Australia indicates this has led to higher vaccination rates. But different countries have pursued very different policies.
Australia’s federal “No Jab, No Pay” policy removes entitlements and childcare subsidies from unvaccinated families. Four Australian states also have “No Jab, No Play” policies to limit vaccine refusers’ access to childcare.
Some governments can use more than one method at once, like Australia’s mix of state and federal policies. Italy’s new policy uses a combination of excluding unvaccinated children from daycare and fines for parents.
Making it hard to refuse
Australia, Italy, France and California make it difficult for parents to refuse vaccines by only permitting medical exemptions to their mandatory policies.
However, other jurisdictions ultimately allow parents to refuse vaccines, albeit using different methods. For example, Germany and the state of Washington require parents to be counselled by medical professionals before they obtain an exemption to vaccinating their child. In Michigan, public health staff provide a mandatory education course for parents seeking non-medical exemptions.
Which policy leads parents to vaccinate?
We can assess a policy to get parents to vaccinate using a notion called “salience”. Put simply, will a vaccination policy actually make parents vaccinate?
For example, Australia’s federal vaccine mandate has become more salient since parents can no longer obtain conscientious objections and risk losing benefits for not vaccinating.
But there are other factors to consider, such as whether a policy promotes timely vaccination.
Australia’s “No Jab, No Pay” policy applies to children from birth, so it motivates parents to vaccinate on time. But the United States has state-level policies that prompt parents to have their children up-to-date with their vaccinations when they start daycare or primary school.
Who doesn’t have to vaccinate?
Another important question is who gets to duck away from the hand of government. Australia’s “No Jab, No Pay” policy leaves wealthy vaccine refusers untouched as they are ineligible for the means-tested benefits docked from unvaccinated families.
And Australian states’ policies to exclude vaccine refusers’ children from daycare doesn’t affect families who don’t use daycare.
Since France and California exclude unvaccinated children from school, these countries have the capacity to reach parents more equitably (almost everyone wants to send their kids to school so more people are incentivised to vaccinate). In both places, you can homeschool if you really don’t want to vaccinate.
Addressing the many reasons for not vaccinating
Mandatory vaccination policies also need to recognise the two types of parent whose child might be unvaccinated. Much airtime focuses on vaccine refusers. However, at least half the children who are not up-to-date with their vaccines face barriers to accessing vaccination, such as social disadvantage or logistical problems getting to a clinic. They are the children of underprivileged parents, not vaccine refusers.
When it comes to the vaccination status of disadvantaged children entering daycare, Australian states have chosen a “light touch” as part of the “No Jab, No Play” policy. Existing state policies provide grace periods or exemptions for these families.
But the federal “No Jab, No Pay” hits all parents where it hurts, and offers no exemptions or grace periods to disadvantaged families. Likewise, California’s school entry mandate makes no such exceptions. Italy and France have daycare exclusions similar to “No Jab, No Play” in their policies, but we have not found any evidence they make exceptions for disadvantaged families.
Finally, mandatory vaccination policies vary on how much they cost for governments to deliver. Oversight of parents, such as inspections or implementing fines, can drain government resources. And educational programs for parents seeking exemptions are expensive to run.
Governments can outsource some of these costs to parents (for instance, parents may have to pay a fee to see a doctor for an exemption).
Governments can also hand over the tasks to medical professionals, but then they have less control over what these professionals do. For instance, California is now seeking tighter regulation of doctors who say children are eligible for medical exemptions. This monitoring will cost the state, but will allow greater oversight. Victoria also had problems with doctors who accommodated vaccine refusers.
So where does this leave us?
Our work investigating international strategies to get parents to vaccinate their children is ongoing. Australians seem strongly attached to our vaccine mandates. But both state and federal policies have undergone tweaks since their inception.
Any future adjustments should ensure all parents are targeted, that disadvantaged families are not further disadvantaged, and that we make it very easy for everybody to access vaccines in their communities and on time.
Globally, as more jurisdictions move away from voluntary child vaccination to mandatory policies, we need to get a clearer picture of how these policies work for families, government and the policy enforcers, including school staff and health professionals.
Spring has sprung and if you’re one of the one in five Australians who get hay fever, you’ve probably noticed some of those pesky symptoms: sneezing; an itchy, runny or stuffy nose; and red, itchy, watery eyes.
Unfortunately children aren’t immune. One in ten will get hay fever – or allergic rhinitis, as it’s known in the clinic – and the rate appears to be rising.
Pollens generally cause seasonal symptoms (in spring or summer), while house dust mites are mainly responsible for year-round symptoms.
Children who are allergic to both seasonal and perennial allergens may experience a marked increase in their symptoms during spring.
Hay fever can lead to fatigue, irritability and poor concentration, and can affect children’s learning and social behaviour. But the good news is it’s usually easily treated.
Tiny particles get trapped in the hairs and mucous that line their nasal cavity, or can enter via the conjunctiva – the tissue that covers their eye.
The body treats these invaders as dangerous and mounts an attack, using antibodies called immunoglobulin E, or IgE.
When the allergens bind to IgE antibodies, which are present on immune cells (such as mast cells), the cells quickly release chemical mediators, including histamines and leukotrienes. This causes sneezing, itchy and/or runny nose, and itchy, watery eyes.
The body then recruits other immune cells, such as T cells, causing more inflammation and worsening symptoms.
How do you know if it’s hay fever?
While hay fever can be a life-long health issue, symptoms can fluctuate over time.
As well as sneezing, an itchy, runny nose, and itchy watery eyes, you might notice your child has a dry cough, is snorting or sniffing, or continually clears their throat.
In some instances, they might make a clicking sound with their tongue when they use it to scratch the roof of their mouth.
While these symptoms may initially look like the common cold, the persistence of symptoms after weeks usually points towards hay fever.
Children with hay fever usually don’t have fevers (which are more common with infections) but they may be more prone to recurrent colds.
If you’re unsure, take your child to your local doctor for a diagnosis. If necessary, they can use skin prick or blood tests to detect the presence of relevant IgE antibodies to the suspected allergens.
Your doctor may then discuss the three main treatment options: avoiding the allergen, oral and topical medications, and allergen immunotherapy.
Avoiding the allergen
Once you suspect or know the allergen, you can help minimise your child’s contact with the cause of their hay fever.
For children who have seasonal allergic rhinitis, allergen minimisation strategies could include:
staying indoors on windy days with high pollen counts
avoiding activities with allergen exposure (such as grass mowing)
having a shower promptly after outdoor activities
using re-circulated air in the car.
For cases of perennial allergic rhinitis, where house dust mite is the dominant cause, avoidance strategies could include:
washing household bedding (sheets and pillow cases) in hot water (above 60°C)
removing soft toys
replacing woollen underlays with dust mite covers
vacuuming carpets with vacuum cleaners fitted with high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters.
Medical therapy is often required in addition to avoiding the allergen.
First line treatments are non-sedating oral antihistamines such as cetirizine, loratadine, fexofenadine and desloratadine. These are available as a syrup or tablets, and can be used for children aged 12 months and over.
They’re available over the counter at pharmacies, or your doctor can advise you on which might work best for your child.
The government has finalised the removal of the last children from
Nauru, as it battles to head off a parliamentary defeat on legislation
to facilitate medical transfers from offshore.
Scott Morrison and Immigration Minister David Coleman said on Sunday:
“There are now only four asylum seeker children on Nauru and they have
all been approved for departure to the United States of America with
When parliament rose for its summer break a government filibuster had
prevented amendments reaching the House of Representatives that would
put medical transfers into the hands of doctors, though with the
minister having some oversight on security grounds. The amendments –
based on a proposal originally coming from independent Kerryn Phelps
and supported by Labor – had been passed by the Senate.
At that time the legislation potentially had enough crossbench backing
in the House to pass, but it is not clear whether that will hold when
it is put to the test this month. The government is pulling out all
stops to peel away crossbench support.
Passage of the measure would be a major blow to the Coalition,
although it would not amount to a vote of no confidence. Asked about major defeats in the past, House of Representatives clerks last year had to go as far back as 1929 (which led to an election) and on the 1941 budget
(which brought down the Fadden government).
The government has been hopeful that it can persuade independent Cathy
McGowan to break ranks with other crossbench supporters of the bill.
McGowan said on Sunday it was good news about the children but she
would reserve her position on the legislation until it came before the
House, after parliament resumes on Tuesday of next week.
“Indefinite detention needs to be addressed,” she said.
Phelps said the news about the remaining children was “absolutely
fantastic” but it was “nowhere near enough”.
Hundreds of people were still languishing on Manus and Nauru and there
were “dire reports” about mental health issues, Phelps said.
The proposed change, which would see medical transfers on the basis of
the advice of two doctors, would “take medical decisions out of the
hands of bureaucrats and politicians – with appropriate ministerial
oversight on national security grounds”.
Phelps said she hadn’t seen any evidence of a weakening of crossbench
support while parliament has been in recess.
The government on Sunday declined to explain how it has been able
arrange for the removal of all the children from Nauru when Home
Affairs Minister Peter Dutton last year suggested security issues were a
barrier to removing some of them.
Dutton told parliament in October there were 13 children at that time
in family groups where there were adults, mostly males “that are the
subject of adverse security assessments from the United States.”
At his news conference on Sunday Coleman refused to clarify how these
security concerns had been resolved or where the people in question
“I can’t go into specific cases but I will say that in each case issues have been worked through to the satisfaction of the Department,” he said.
Asked whether some of the children who had been brought to Australia
still had parents on Nauru because of a negative security assessment,
Coleman said: “There have been a number of issues that have been
worked through – but, no, the family groups are together”.
In a fresh effort to persuade the crossbenchers not to inflict a
damaging parliamentary defeat on the government, Scott Morrison has
said the government will set up a medical panel to review transfers
from Manus and Nauru.
The Medical Transfer Clinical Assurance Panel would be chaired by a
nominee of the Commonwealth Chief Medical Officer, and include
representatives from Foundation House (which provides services to
refugees) and the Australian Medical Association, and two nominees
from the Home Affairs department’s Chief Medical Officer.
If a transfer was rejected, the panel would look at the case, and make
a recommendation to the minister.
The structure would still leave the ultimate authority at ministerial level.
Phelps told the ABC on Monday the new panel would not solve the
problem because bureaucrats would still be making the decisions on
transfers, with the review coming later. The process needed to be
fast-tracked, she said, maintaining support for the bill that will
come to the House.
Coleman said if the bill were passed this would “effectively lead to
the end of offshore processing”.
Australia’s off-shore detention policy is unravelling. Predictably, after five years of detention, the mental health of adults and children who have been left in indefinite detention on Nauru is collapsing. On Monday, 11 children and their families were flown to Australia for urgent medical attention.
The New Zealand deal, under which some asylum seekers could be resettled in New Zealand as long as they are banned from ever coming to Australia, is now being seriously considered.
Good politics, bad policy
From the middle of 2013, when off-shore processing was re-started on Nauru and Manus Island, the Rudd government, and later the Abbott government, made bold and irresponsible claims that no asylum seeker attempting to enter Australia by boat would ever be resettled here.
This played well to an Australian public spooked by a dramatic rise in boat arrivals under the Rudd government between 2009 and 2013, and set the foundation for a policy that has systematically brutalised hundreds of innocent people.
The claim, in the name of deterrence, relied on hopes Australian governments would find places to resettle the asylum seekers and refugees on Nauru and Manus Island in other countries. But there was no plan as to where they might go and, predictably, resettlement proved very difficult.
Malcolm Turnbull seemed to have stumbled upon a resolution when the Obama administration agreed to take sone refugees from Nauru and Manus.
The current US administration has resettled 276 people from Nauru and rejected a further 148. There may be more resettlements to come, but there is no clear timetable, and it will be a resolution for only some of the 652 people remaining on Nauru.
Inexplicably, the Australian Government has repeatedly rejected an offer from New Zealand to resettle 150 refugees there, fearing that people will take advantage of open migration between Australia and New Zealand and will end up resettling here.
Under renewed pressure from opposition parties, the government is reconsidering the New Zealand offer, but only if there is a travel ban preventing refugees ever coming to Australia. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has drawn, once again, on the tired justification that to allow asylum seekers any right of entry to Australia may encourage people smuggling.
Why the people smuggling argument does not stack up
The people smuggling narrative does not withstand reasonable scrutiny. How much cruelty to innocent people on Manus and Nauru is really needed to stop the boats?
A comparison with the Howard years is instructive. From 2001 to 2008, of the 1,153 refugees and asylum seekers resettled on Nauru and Manus Island, 705 went to Australia, 401 to New Zealand and 47 to other Western countries. Most were resettled between 2002 and 2004.
These resettlements were not followed by a resumption of the people smuggling trade. From 2002 to 2007, 18 boats arrived with 288 asylum seekers. In addition, one boat was turned back with 14 passengers.
What remained important for deterrence was the possibility of being detained offshore with no guarantee of being settled in Australia and New Zealand. Only when this possibility was removed (when the new Rudd government dismantled the Howard government’s offshore processing and turn-back policies) was there a dramatic spike in asylum seekers arriving by boat.
The message of deterrence is clear
The systemic cruelty of detaining refugees in offshore detention centres indefinitely has sent an unequivocal message to any asylum seekers who might contemplate seeking asylum in Australia by boat. No person would countenance subjecting themselves to the mental and physical trauma suffered by detainees on Nauru and Manus Island for the chance of receiving protection in Australia. And no parent would risk subjecting their child to a lifetime of mental illness.
The Australian government has proved its mettle. It is prepared to subject innocent people to the cruellest of punishments, to disregard basic principles of human dignity, and to ignore its obligations under international law. This is deterrent enough for any prospective boat rider.
Time to end an inhumane policy
It is well past time to resettle every refugee and asylum seeker on Manus and Nauru in Australia. If this is done while the policies of boat turn backs and offshore detention remain in place, this will not lead to a resumption of people smuggling operations. And if I am wrong in this, we can be confident of stopping the boats again, as the government did with startling effectiveness in 2001 and 2013.
It seems that the government may finally be softening its untenable hard line. With no other resolutions on the table, most of the refugees on Nauru and Manus must end up in Australia or New Zealand.
Until this happens, the mental health of refugees stuck on Nauru and Manus will continue to deteriorate, and courageous whistleblowers will continue to risk their employment revealing the brutality and trauma of conditions in detention.
All this pain and suffering, and economic cost, for a deterrent that is not needed.
US President Donald Trump’s policy of separating children from their families at the Mexican border has sparked outrage in recent months, both in the US and abroad. It became so heated that he eventually ended the separation of families, though their fate remains unclear.
However, Trump is not the only leader to incarcerate children and use their suffering as a form of deterrence. The detention of asylum-seeker children has a long and brutal history in Australia. Trump’s policy invites us to reflect on our own policies regarding the detention of asylum seekers and the situation of children and families fleeing persecution.
Currently, over 200 children are in asylum-seeker detention, including on Nauru, in mainland detention centres and in community-based detention. Many have endured prison-like conditions, with no clear date for their release for months, if not years.
While most children remain with one of their parents, my research has found that separation of families is common. This includes the removal of young men on their 18th birthdays from their families with no warning or follow-up as to their whereabouts.
The mandatory incarceration of asylum-seeker children is an uncommon practice globally. It contravenes important human rights instruments to which Australia is a signatory, most notably the Convention on the Rights of the Child. This states:
No child shall be deprived of his or her liberty unlawfully or arbitrarily … (This) shall be used only as measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time.
The degree of despair felt by children and their families is well-documented and goes back many years.
In 2004, the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission (HREOC) published A Last Resort? National Inquiry into Children in Immigration Detention. This document outlined the privations of the lives of those held in detention centres in Australia, including the famous case of Shayan Badraie. He was detained for nearly two years, witnessing attempted suicide, self-harming and violence that resulted in several hospital admissions before the family was released.
The report also documents physical assault by guards, mental illness and lack of appropriate food, shelter and education.
A Last Resort not only documents terrible human rights abuses, but the ongoing effects on those who experienced them. But, far from ending the incarceration of children and their parents, the policy of detention as deterrence has continued. In this regard, Australia is unusual, being the only developed country that imposes mandatory detention on people arriving by boat.
In 2014, the HREOC conducted another investigation, The Forgotten Children. This report documents in detail ongoing breaches of human rights, unsafe living conditions, medical neglect and physical and sexual assault.
Dehumanisation occurs on every level. One 16-year-old boy stated:
People were called by boat ID. People had no value. No guards called me by name. They knew our name, but only called by boat ID.
Children are also constantly exposed to the trauma of other detainees. One father said:
The word of “suicide” is not an unknown word to our children anymore. They are growing up with these bitter words. Last week a lot of women took action to suicide in Construction Camp. All the kids were scared and crying. How do we remove these bad scenes from our kids’ memories?
The report documents other cases of despair. A 13 year-old-boy detained on Nauru expressed to the treating doctor “a complete loss of hope; despair”. The doctor described how “[h]e had no appetite and no will to eat. He lost over 10 kilograms, which would be about a quarter of his body weight.”
The Australian government has tried to hide the conditions experienced by those held in places like Nauru and Manus Island. In particular, the Border Force Act (2015-17) imposed criminal sanctions on workers who speak publicly about what they see.
However, there is overwhelming and easily accessible evidence that Australia’s policies cause both immediate and ongoing trauma to children, and indeed all those incarcerated in detention. We must recall that Australia is a signatory to the Refugee Convention and that seeking asylum is enshrined in this instrument.
So while we can express moral outrage about things that occur far from home, our own policies ensure human rights breaches that cause unnecessary suffering and trauma for long periods of time.
There is now substantial evidence of the poor treatment of asylum-seeker children. This has come from a plethora of reports from human rights organisations, healthcare providers and detainees like Behrouz Boochani, who document and publish the conditions of incarceration.
They remind us of what the Holocaust historian Yehuda Bauer said: “Do not be a victim; do not be a perpetrator; and above all, do not be a bystander.”
Over the last few years, the Islamic State (IS) terror group has shocked the world with its gruesome public spectacles. Especially abhorrent to our moral sensibilities is its overt use of children as frontline fighters, suicide bombers and propaganda tools.
From macabre hide-and-seek exercises, in which children hunt and kill enemy prisoners in specially constructed mazes, to the mass execution and decapitation of adult soldiers, young people living under IS have been indoctrinated and encouraged to engage in violence.
Meanwhile, IS’s quasi-government instituted an education system explicitly aimed at indoctrinating and weaponising the children living under it.
Mathematics was practised by determining how many more fighters IS has than an opposing force. Chemistry was taught by discussion of methods of gas inhalation. And physical education focused on the correct body positions for firing various weapons.
Their education has been compounded by the retaliatory and sometimes excessive violence of the vast array of forces committed to destroying IS. Through this, children have been exposed to horrific violence on a daily basis – thus generating trauma and, undoubtedly, genuine long-term grievances.
How IS’s use of child soldiers differs
There is a fundamental difference between IS’s use of child soldiers and the practice elsewhere.
IS hasn’t just recruited child soldiers. It systematically militarised the education systems of captured Iraqi and Syrian territory to turn the region’s children into ideological timebombs.
These children, saturated in IS’s particular brand of violent and uncompromising “religious” instruction from about the age of five, were trained in the use of small arms before their teenage years. They constitute a new challenge for the international community.
IS’s state-building efforts appear to have been thwarted for now. But saving the children exposed and potentially indoctrinated in its ideology is key to avoiding further terror attacks in the West, tackling the root causes of regional upheaval, and working toward a future where children play instead of fight, and schools teach instead of drill.
Various videos, produced both through journalistic investigation and by IS itself, show the more practical side of education under the group’s rule. Children are taught how to fire small arms and use hand grenades.
Although IS extensively forced children into its ranks, many joined voluntarily – with or without their families’ blessing. But, in the long term, it doesn’t matter whether a child is forcibly recruited or not. And this is the matter of gravest concern.
IS’s primary concern is building and maintaining the children’s loyalty. The phrase “cubs of the caliphate” is a microcosm of how it views them. Cubs are unruly, ill-disciplined and dependent on strong (sometimes violent) guidance from their elders.
However, with time, resources and patience they can turn into a generation of fighters and idealists who will foster IS’s ideology even if its current military setbacks prove terminal.
Programs need to take a new approach
Disarmament, demobilisation and rehabilitation programs designed to reintegrate child soldiers into post-conflict society have significantly progressed in recent years. This represents the continued evolution of military-civil partnerships in the quest for a conflict-free world.
But IS’s systematic and meticulous radicalisation of an entire region’s children presents new challenges.
It’s understandable to interpret IS’s rapid retreat as its death knell, and thereby view traditional rehabilitation techniques as an appropriate remedy for yet another region recovering from violence at the hands of a radical armed insurgency. However, this conflict has been highly unusual in its pace, tactics and impacts – both now and potentially in the future.
So, we must revisit the fundamental assumptions of what it means to inspire peace within a society. This starts with the children subjected to the ideological extremism of IS and other armed groups.
If there is to be sustainable peace in the areas liberated from IS control, rehabilitation programs must be viewed as a community-wide process. Even if children did not directly participate in IS activities, the group has moulded their worldview and underpinning life philosophies.
Such philosophies may be especially productive in a region where resentment of perceived foreign – Western – interference and exploitation is long-lasting and multifaceted.
What can be done
The regular processes of identifying child combatants, disarming and reintegrating them into their communities through rehabilitation (such as by ensuring they are physically and mentally capable of rejoining their communities) and reconciliation (developing peace, trust and justice among children and their communities) are all necessary. But they are vastly insufficient in this instance.
Rarely has there been such systematic youth radicalisation and militarisation. So, the international response must be equally far-reaching and methodical.
Rapid reimplementation and revisiting of pre-IS school curricula is of the highest priority. National and local governments should ensure children are shielded from further recruitment by instituting a curriculum drawn from principles of tolerance and inclusion.
It’s essential to develop locally run initiatives to measure the level of radicalisation among a community’s children and to construct child-friendly spaces for young people to socialise, reconnect with their wider community and “unlearn” what they adopted under IS.
Such practices will help to heal the wounds of IS occupation and ensure the potential for cyclical violence is removed. Done right, it will hinder IS’s ability to rise anew.