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New "Profiling" Software Aims To Detect Extremism In Youth

Zurich researchers have developed a questionnaire to help schoolteachers, social workers and police officers recognize signs of student radicalization.

New "Profiling" Software Aims To Detect Extremism In Youth
Celine Zund

ZURICH — There's a question on the minds of many professionals who work daily with young people, especially in schools: Is it possible to detect the warning signs of an extremist drift, and nip it in the bud? Researchers at the Zurich-based Swiss Social Research Institute (SifG) believe so. They've devised a new software called Radicalization Profiling, or Ra-Prof.

It takes the form of a 42-question survey designed to help confirm or counter initial suspicions about a student's potential radicalization. While the tests have only been run in Zurich since last November, the software has already been translated into 14 languages, and it has piqued the interest of numerous Swiss districts as well Austria.

"Professionals often feel helpless regarding radicalization," says Daniele Lenzo, head of Zurich's city safety department and designer of the software.

Three colors for three possible results: green, red and orange

Are some of your students refusing to take part in co-ed gym class? Are they sharing Islamic State propaganda videos online? Are they increasingly withdrawn, or struggling with their studies? To Ra-Prof, such behaviors might be interpreted as warning signs of radicalization.

"It is important that the person who answers the questions is well-acquainted with the student whose behavior is being assessed, so as to spot any change in habits without seeking further information," notes Lenzo.

This program is not designed to help professionals monitor the children they take care of. On the contrary, it aims to give them the tools to identify vulnerable children. As Lenzo explains, "Because Islam has now become subversive, children who are in pain may resort to it as a way of provoking adults or drawing attention to themselves."

How does it work?

When schoolteachers, social workers and police officers suspect students of developing an interest in extremism, they can consult with Lenzo, who will provide them with the questionnaire if he believes their concerns are well-founded; only he will see the results.

Three color-based results are possible: green, if there is no urgent need for action; orange, if some additional information is required; and red, if action must be taken in response to a "clear tendency toward radicalization." If the case appears serious enough, the safety services can alert the police department or transfer the results to intelligent services.

Radicalization follows recognizable patterns

Lenzo, who was trained to detect jihadist behaviors in Europe, strongly believes that "radicalization follows recognizable patterns." A student's refusal to shake hands with a female teacher on religious grounds, or sudden interest in practicing a conservative interpretation of Islam, are insufficient indicators on their own of a potential jihadist. But some sudden impulses may well be interpreted as symptomatic of an ongoing process of radicalization. That's why it is so difficult for professionals to weigh potential risks without casting suspicion over on a whole religious community.

"The idea is not to single out the Muslim community. 98% of Muslims practice their faith peacefully. Radicalization only concerns 2% of individuals who want to impose their religious beliefs on others, who are socially withdrawn and/or who live a second life online. Only they are potentially dangerous," Lenzo says.

Sometimes, speaking with a student's parents is all it takes to end the radicalization process.

"What matters to us is whether the student is in touch with a criminal organization or not," Lenzo notes.

The software's limits

But the questionnaire has limitations. Without further analysis, it can be misleading. Lenzo recalls a case in a Zurich school: A student had suddenly withdrawn and started skipping class while assiduously taking part in an Islamic association. According to the questionnaire, such a change in behavior put him in the red zone.

But initiating a discussion with the teacher and the student in question, it turned out that he was the victim of schoolyard bullying; his religious conversion was simply a way of seeking refuge. Equipped with this information, the teacher was able to take supportive action. The bullying ended, and the tension between the student and his surroundings disappeared.

To date, the Ra-Prof software has only been used 40 times in Zurich. Though no case of radicalization has been detected, the software has successfully put minds at ease.

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BOGOTÁ — A 2021 report from the United States (the Youth Risk Behavior Survey) found that 42% of the country's high-school students persistently felt sad and 22% had thought about suicide. In other words, almost half of the country's young people are living in despair and a fifth of them have thought about killing themselves.

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I have written before on possible links between severe depression and the time young people spend on social media. But this is just one aspect of the problem. Today, young people suffer frequent and intense emotional crises, and not just for all the hours spent staring at a screen. Another, possibly more important cause may lie in changes to the family composition and authority patterns at home.

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Young people marry at a later age, have fewer children and many opt for personal projects and pets instead of having children. Families are more diverse and flexible. In many countries, the number of children per woman is close to or less than one (Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea, Hong Kong among others).

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Of further concern today is the decline in communication time at home, notably between parents and children. This is difficult to quantify, but reasons may include fewer household members, pervasive use of screens, mothers going to work, microwave ovens that have eliminated family cooking and meals and, thanks to new technologies, an increase in time spent on work, even at home. Our society is addicted to work and devotes little time to minors.

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