Charities say the case of a UK teenager who became the youngest girl to be charged with terror offences after online grooming by rightwing extremists should be a “wake-up call” about the online vulnerability of children.
Rhianan Rudd, who was 15 when charged, took her own life at a Nottinghamshire children’s home in May last year, when she was 16.
The charges against her had by then been dropped after evidence proved she had been a victim of online grooming.
Nigel Bromage, the founder of the charity Exit Hate, which supports people to move away from extremism, said it was seeing a growing number of children fall victim to online grooming by rightwing extremists.
“The youngest we’ve worked with is a nine-year-old boy who was being influenced via video games,” he said.
“Hearing about Rhianan’s story, we’re seeing that journey being replicated time and time again. Our hearts go out to the family affected, and it is definitely a wake-up call as to how vulnerable our young people are online.”
He added: “Teachers, families, we’ve all got to be able to have conversations with our young people about this, even if they are difficult and make us feel uncomfortable. Otherwise, we’re just opening the door to the extremists.”
Nick Lowles, the chief executive at Hope Not Hate, said Rhianan’s story was “sadly another case of how far-right extremism ruins lives”.
“In recent years, we’ve heard stories from parents of their children changing in front of their eyes after watching extreme content online,” he said.
“It’s vital that between schools, parents and the police, there is more joined up thinking on how to support children who are exposed to extreme content online and ensure our counter-extremism strategy isn’t just viewed through a law-and-order lens.”
Rhianan’s mother, Emily Carter, told the BBC this weekthat her daughter should have been treated “as a victim rather than a terrorist”, and described how her daughter took on extreme views “like a sponge”.
“She’s a child, an autistic child. She should have been treated as a child that had been groomed and sexually exploited,” she said, adding police should have dealt with the case “completely differently”.
At the age of 14, Rhianan, who lived in Derbyshire, was charged with the possession of instructions to make both firearms and explosives, and at the time of her arrest she had gouged a swastika into her forehead, which she subsequently tried to erase.
She had been talking online to Christopher Cook, an American neo-Nazi who previously pleaded guilty to planning a terror attack on a US power grid.
Evidence also showed that she had been influenced by Dax Mallaburn, a former boyfriend of Rhianan’s mother and a member of neo-Nazi group the Arizona Aryan Brotherhood.
Bromage said tech companies should step up, citing an example of a current project with Facebook that redirects people to the Exit Hate page when they search the name of certain rightwing extremists.
But he added there needed to be more awareness of some of the underlying causes that leave young people feeling “lost” and more likely to fall victim to groomers online.
“A lot of the young people we speak to at the moment struggle with identity, and how they can identify as white and English, or male,” he said.
“We try and teach them how to protect and celebrate their identity in a way that is multicultural, in a way they don’t have to worry about being called a racist because it’s inclusive.
“We need to help educate people on what we actually can celebrate and what might cause offence.”
Derbyshire police were contacted for comment, but declined while inquest proceedings into Rhianan’s death are ongoing.