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Parents Can Reduce Lure of Cults for Children

Regular communication often deters alienation that prompts kids to join

IT was street-level lingo, but gang expert Steve Nawojczk from Little Rock, Ark., heard it as a brilliant description of why youths sometimes join cults and gangs.

"I was talking with inner-city kids one day," he says, "and a young girl said, no, she didn't think rap music and violent movies cause kids to be violent. Then she paused and added, 'Unless their screws aren't in tight.' "

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Young people, often susceptible to negative influences, or drifting without purpose, are now a heightened concern for parents and experts in the wake of the mass suicide in San Diego by Heaven's Gate cult members.

Whether a youth is casually reading a cult Web site on the Internet at home, or being pressured by aggressive cult members to attend a free meeting, what can parents do to help make sure the "screws are in tight" for their child?

Experts say to look first at some of the reasons nearly anybody - young, middle-aged, or older - might be adrift in life. Some people are highly vulnerable because of an unfulfilled life, or one caught in loneliness. And with easy access to cyberspace, parents shouldn't underestimate how Internet surfing can make cult Web sites attractive to some youngsters.

"I think adults who get involved in cult groups are looking for identity, for belonging, recognition, love and discipline just like kids are," says Mr. Nawojczk, a former coroner in Little Rock who befriended street gangs because so many youths were coming to him in body bags. "With the Heaven's Gate people, it was more intellectual," he says, "but it shows they were just as vulnerable as kids in street gangs."

Open lines

Steady, clear communication with children, as well as finding the right balance between distance and closeness, is key for parents, even when it comes to youngsters using computers. "I advise parents not to think of the personal computer as a glorified baby sitter," says Jay Friedland, vice president of Spyglass Inc., in Los Altos, Calif., and co-creator of Surfwatch, a software program that blocks unsuitable Web sites for children.

"When a child is on-line, think of him or her as being out there in the world," he says. "You wouldn't send an eight-year-old to the mall by himself, so you need the same kind of parental awareness when it comes to cyberspace."

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Still, for all the attention focused on the Internet as a potential cult recruiter, Mr. Friedland says the personal charisma of the leader of Heaven's Gate was what apparently attracted and held members.

"As for the Web sites of cult or hate groups, I don't think they have led to a large increase in membership for these groups, but I think we may find that e-mail becomes a new kind of solicitation method," he says. "I think the more media attention a group has, the more followers it gets."

Other experts say children have been recruited by pedophiles and others from cyberspace bulletin boards, chat rooms, news groups, and by e-mail. "Parents have to become involved with children and their interests on the Internet," says Rick Ross, a controversial "deprogrammer" of youths in cults, and a lecturer about destructive and radical groups.

"Sit down with your kids and surf together," he says. "You have to participate and become part of their experience. Either that or don't have a computer in the house. One family I know was disinterested in their son's activities on his computer. While the parents were watching TV in the living room, the son was being recruited in his bedroom."

Within a wider cultural context, some experts say that in the United States, where there is an emphasis on entertainment and material consumption, realizing individual worth can be elusive if families aren't strong.

"Anytime you have people who feel hopeless and helpless," says Stanley Pollack, founder and director of Teen Empowerment in Boston, "they are prone to go where they think they belong. And Heaven's Gate is sort of an upper-middle-class version of this. They turn everything they own over to the group. In gangs, kids may be joining for economic and safety reasons."

Watch for changes

Experts say there are changes to watch for in youths drawn to a cult: increased isolation from everyone previously known; a polarized view that good exists only in the group and everything outside is bad or evil; the group is more important than the individual; and feelings become more important than rational thought.

"In my view, we have a serious problem in the US regarding radical and extremist groups," says Mr. Ross. "The coercive persuasion characterized in Heaven's Gate can be seen in other groups. The Internet is both a bane and a blessing to these groups because while it affords low-cost recruiting, the Net also offers critical information about cults."

"Most important, parents have to know their kids, and know whom their child is communicating with," Nawojczk says. "We have to make young people more welcome in our society so they don't have to create their own societies."

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