I watched the video of ISIS bride Shamima Begum and, like most people, felt angry.
But it wasn’t her I felt angry with. It was whoever taught her to act that way. Whoever it was who groomed her.
Grooming and brainwashing are complicated, thorny topics. It’s easy to say that anyone who does something you dislike or struggle to understand has been brainwashed. But in the case of Shamima I can’t help thinking it’s true.
Whether you think she should be made stateless, left to fend for herself, brought home to stand trial or forgiven entirely, you can’t deny that something must have happened to Shamima to make her that way.
Humans aren’t born feeling ambivalent to severed heads.
The most likely explanation is that she was radicalised online. Or to use the parlance applied when it’s secular: she was groomed.
If Shamima was groomed online then she’s a victim of the internet age, a victim of unregulated internet access, in just the same way that teenagers all over the world are.
We know that the internet is a dangerous place for teenagers. The death by suicide of 14 year old Molly Russell demonstrates that. I would argue that Shamima Begum is a result of the same dangerous, dark corners of the internet that killed Molly Russell and has contributed to the death or mental health problems of so many teenagers and young people.
I know this first hand, because I sought out those dark corners as a teenager.
Like most people in their mid or late twenties, I came of age in an interesting time for the internet. We as tweens and teens were discovering dark nooks and crannies faster than any adult could regulate for.
There were posters up in in the IT room which said ‘never speak to a stranger, never give any personal details, never meet anyone you’ve spoken to’. But those were rules made by adults who couldn’t even work an iPod. Why would we listen to them?
Pro anorexia and bulimia sites were all the range in the mid 00s. I ran an online diary where I detailed everything I ate and everything I threw up while other girls in Scotland, Canada and Australia commented and gave me tips.
The thing about these communities – and I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to compare extremist religious groups to extremist eating disorder groups – is that they make you feel important. It might not be a morally acceptable community, but it’s still a community.
A place where you feel welcomed and safe. When you finish a day at school where your friends don’t seem to understand you (whether that’s because of your hardline religious stance or your refusal to eat anything brown or yellow) these enclaves of the internet feel like a shelter. A safe space.
It’s no wonder that you end up becoming more and more obsessed, counting the hours until you can be back online.
After my foray into the eating disorder communities online, a toxic but self grooming community, I fell into a more sinister kind of grooming.
The official message from teachers and teen magazines was never to go on a chat room. So of course, I went onto chat rooms.
I started with the super popular Habbo Hotel, where you had a little avatar and moved around the hotel talking to other people. While the owners of the site did try to moderate it, blocking sexual and abusive language, they didn’t have much luck. It was a hotbed of cybersex and unquestionably a place where grooming happened.
Habbo Hotel spread the popularity of another chat site called PreTeenChat, theoretically a chat room for preteens and teenagers. In reality a hunting ground for men who liked talking to young girls.
I had a six month long chat relationship with a man who claimed to be in his late twenties but was probably much older. We spoke on MSN most days. It wasn’t until my mid twenties that I realised his behaviour, slowly coaxing me into trusting him, into sending him pictures and eventually trying to convince me to meet him, was classic grooming.
People like that make you feel special and different. They single you out and change your perception of yourself and the people around you. They tell you what you want to hear when you want to hear it and seduce you into trusting them.
At a time in your life when you struggle to be understood and are so often told no, it’s intoxicating to be told yes. At a time when you feel ugly it’s compelling to be called beautiful. Is it really any surprise that the NSPCC reported over 4,000 cases of grooming last year?
And even less of a wonder that in 62% of cases, the person being groomed was a girl aged between 12 and 15.
So again, while my experience was about flirting rather than religion, I can completely understand how these things happen.
For me it was exacerbating my disordered eating or sending nude pictures I wasn’t sure I wanted to send. For some young people it’s self harm or drugs. For Shamima Begum it was Islamic extremism. There’s very little that you can’t find on the internet if you’re bored, lonely and looking for it.
I often use my experience of grooming as a punchline, an amusing if slightly shocking anecdote to share after a few glasses of wine. But the stories over the last few weeks of how the internet can destroy a young woman’s mental stability have made me realised that my experiences aren’t funny.
They’re disturbing, and I’m very grateful that the attempts weren’t more successful.
Neither I nor any teenager should ever find themselves in a situation where they are being groomed online. But it is far more common than you might expect.
Shamima Begum is an extreme example, but all over the world right now there are girls who are having their perception of the world shaped either by underground communities or even mainstream accounts on sites like Instagram and Pinterest.
According to the NSPCC the process of grooming can take just 45 minutes.
We have got to do better for these girls. We have got to find a way to regulate the internet so that even the most tech savvy teenager cannot find a sympathetic voice telling them that they have all the answers.