UMass group protecting teens from terrorism online

UMass group protecting teens from terrorism online

LOWELL, Mass. — Mention kids and online safety, and topics like bullying and sexual predators usually come to mind.

Some students from the University of Massachusetts Lowell, however, are also concerned about the threat teens can face by interacting with terrorist organizations.

The organization is called Operation 250 and it recently won a $1-million grant from the Department of Homeland Security for an educational program they developed.

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The students worked under the guidance of UMass Lowell professor Neil Shortland, the director of the Center for Terrorism and Security Studies.

Shortland says certain teens can be a target for recruitment.

“When there are different needs and different vulnerabilities, you can easily see how involvement in extremism can fill those," he said. "We see that in the variety of messages they put out.”

With a quick review of social media, Shortland found a number of pictures that he thought would be troubling and that he felt a teen might take out of context.

“If you look at some of the statistics, around how many times people have come into contact with bomb-making materials or bomb-making instructions, it’s around 30 to 40 percent of individuals," he said. "That’s a lot more than you want."

Operation 250, which refers to the estimated 250 teens who have been recruited into terrorism, includes a curriculum that can be used in schools to stimulate frank conversations.

Tyler Cote, who's in his early 20s and one of the original five students who developed the program, is now a full-time employee of Operation 250. Since the group works with teens he believes his age is an asset.

“Having us being able to walk into those classrooms and have these hard-hitting conversations with them, they are far more open to speaking to us and talking to us about some of the things that maybe they've seen,” he said.

One of the other founders, Danielle Thibodeau, is happy the federal government has recognized their work.

“It’s a great feeling knowing we’re not the only ones that see this problem,” she said.

Finding bad stuff on the internet will always be a problem, but the founders of this program are ready to fight the good fight.

Moving forward, the plan is to broaden the organization’s original mission of countering violent extremism, to address other areas of online safety for young people.