How Some Teens Turn Into Terrorists

By Lenore Skenazy

January 25, 2018 5 min read

Dina Temple-Raston is NPR's globe-trotting terrorism gal. It blows? She goes. But after 10 years, she says, "it got a little wearing."

I'll bet.

While gathering the facts on each attack, she found herself wondering: How did the terrorists get this way? In particular, she couldn't get over how young many of the recruits were. Al-Qaida seemed to attract men in their 20s and 30s. But the Islamic State group was attracting teenagers.

Off she went to interview the young people themselves — teens who'd made disastrously terrible decisions — as well as a gaggle of brain scientists. The result is her six-episode Audible podcast series, "What Were You Thinking? Inside the Adolescent Brain."

As it turns out, the adolescent brain is sort of hard-wired to make some decisions many parents (and cops and judges) find wrong. And in a strange way, that's reassuring.

Take, for instance, a young man named Ryan Green in Paducah, Kentucky. "You meet Ryan and it's hard not to like him," says Temple-Raston. But he's a guy who hacked 77,000 computers. Did he do it to screw the world?

It seems he was more concerned about being considered an "elite" hacker and earning street cred — something a whole lot of adolescents crave on the basketball court or even the debate team. Peer respect activates the "feel-good chemical" in the brain — dopamine — which seems to push young people to take risks and work incredibly hard at something, even when that something is not what you'd put on your college applications.

On her show, Temple-Raston doesn't just describe what the brain scientists are discovering about how kids are wired. She also travels to places working on innovative solutions to the problems — whether that's teen radicalization, suicide or murderous rage. In the case of teen hackers, she went to Israel. There the government actively scouts for computer talent at a very young age and nurtures those kids so they can eventually work for the good of the country — rather than against it. Maybe America needs to do the same.

Temple-Raston also interviewed Abdullahi Yusuf, a Minnesota high school football player who was just about to board a plane to join the Islamic State group when the authorities stopped him. Turns out it's quite possible that this was not a young man drawn to cruelty but the opposite. He'd read about women and children suffering atrocities in Syria and wanted to help them. The Islamic State was doing just that — he thought. (This was before it started beheading people.)

In adolescence, the empathy part of the brain is basically "throbbing," says Temple-Raston. So if your teenager is in tears because you're eating a burger and meat is murder, you shouldn't be that surprised. During those formative years, a cause can become a young person's world — even a cause that looks crazy from the outside.

In another episode, Temple-Raston interviews the parents of teens who have killed themselves. With social media, news of a teen death spreads like wildfire. Everyone's talking about it and perhaps then thinking about it. Recently, some towns, such as Colorado Springs, have suffered "suicide contagion," with up to 16 such tragedies a year.

What can be done? In Britain, there's a new app teens can tap when they're at their lowest. "So if you are feeling sad, they have a bunch of kids who have felt the same way who'll get on the line and talk to you." The teens learn they're not alone. (By the way, here in America, there's a confidential hotline, too: 800-273-8255.)

Of course, most teens will never shoot anyone or join a holy war. But it's quite likely they're a little high-strung and passionate about a cause you, the parent, are not passionate about. Bottom line: It's probably not your parenting causing this rift; it's their brains. And soon enough, they'll be back to normal.

It just may not feel soon enough.

Lenore Skenazy is president of Let Grow, founder of Free-Range Kids and author of "Has the World Gone Skenazy?" To learn more about Lenore Skenazy ([email protected]) and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at

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