Accessible Published by De Gruyter August 20, 2021

Concept of and approaches toward a developmental prevention of radicalization: Promising strategies to keep young people away from political, religious, and other forms of extremism

Andreas Beelmann


Radicalization and violent extremism in young people are growing problems in almost every society around the globe. This article starts by briefly summarizing the result of several comprehensive reviews on the prevention of radicalization and violent extremism. Based on a new social-developmental model of radicalization, it then introduces the concept of developmental prevention and presents a review of prevention principles, approaches, and programs derived from a developmental perspective within four different fields of proximal radicalization processes. These include (1) identity problems; (2) prejudice and negative intergroup attitudes; (3) extremist narratives, beliefs, and ideologies; and (4) antisocial development. Overall, several approaches and programs reveal promising effect sizes for a developmentally founded prevention of radicalization. However, more sound evaluations are needed to further promote this field.


Despite the urgency of the current Covid19 pandemic, radicalization and extremism continue to be pressing problems throughout the world. According to the Global Terrorism Index, about 16,000 people lost their lives in 2019 as a result of politically or religiously motivated terrorist attacks (Institute for Economics and Peace, 2019). Although these are mainly people from the so-called MENA states (Middle East, North Africa), problems of radicalization and extremism are still a realistic threat within European societies. For example, about 42,000 politically motivated offenses were registered in Germany in 2019—an increase of about 14 percent compared to 2018 (BMI, 2020). Of these, 27,500 offences and 2,800 violent crimes had an explicit extremist background. In addition, about 30,000 people have been observed as suspected cases of being right-wing, left-wing, or religious extremists, and a substantial number of these express a readiness to use violence. These and other data underline the need for effective prevention measures as a prominent future challenge facing the world community. However, when designing and implementing programs, it will be important to do this against the background of scientific knowledge on how radicalization and extremism emerge. This article presents an overview of relevant issues and promising approaches with which to tackle growing radicalization in young people from a developmental science perspective.

State of the art in radicalization prevention

Although several comprehensive reviews have been published within the last decade (e.g., Aerts, 2019; Feddes & Gallucci, 2015; Jugl, Lösel, Bender, & King, 2021; Madriaza & Ponsot, 2015; Pistone et al., 2019; van Hemert et al., 2014), knowledge on radicalization prevention is still relatively sparse due to several methodological limitations. First, there have been a lot of projects but only a few examples of sound evaluation studies. This holds especially for true preventive programs compared to de-radicalization projects. Second, most studies are anecdotal case reports or implementation studies without any measurement of radicalization and extremism outcomes with valid assessment tools. Third, different definitions of radicalization and extremism make it hard to compare projects and programs or their outcomes. Finally, it seems especially difficult to conduct randomized control trials, at least for high-risk target groups. As a result, the state of the art in radicalization prevention permits only a few general substantial conclusions and implications. These include:

  • Several authors recommend a reorientation of the field toward empirically confirmed risk and protective factors or more generally toward promoting skills to strengthen mental health and positive development in young people (e.g, Stephens, Sieckelinck & Boutellier, 2019; Trip et al., 2019).

  • Several authors call for a better integration of the social context of the target groups into prevention concepts—for example, by not only addressing the ideology of extremist groups but also integrating their emotional and pragmatic bonds such as their financial dependence (e.g., Madriaza & Ponsot, 2015; Stephens et al., 2019; van Hemert et al., 2014).

  • Programs aiming to promote empathy, perspective taking, and other social-cognitive abilities have frequently been recommended (e.g., Feddes & Gallucci, 2015; Jugl et al., 2021; Trip et al., 2019; van Hemert et al., 2014).

  • In addition, critical media and communication competencies that immunize against indoctrination have been viewed as of special value in preventing extremist ideologies, particularly in the context of internet-based propaganda and activities in the social media (e.g., Aerts, 2019; Briggs & Feve, 2013; Pratchett et al., 2010; Madriaza & Pensot, 2015; van Hemert et al, 2014).

  • Some reviews argue in favor of well-educated administrators with high credibility and authority possibly with the same social background as the target group (e.g., Christmann, 2012).

  • At the same time, programs should allow concrete learning experiences (e.g., via role play or concrete exercises) instead of only information-based programs possibly tailored to the leaders of peer groups (e.g., Aerts, 2019; Madriaza & Ponsot, 2015; Pratchett et al., 2010).

  • Finally, prevention or deradicalization concepts should be sensitive to stigmatization effects—for example, when programs and resources are allocated to risk groups, thereby implying latent or implicit prejudice against them (Aerts, 2019, Madriaza & Ponsot, 2015).

In addition to these findings, a few positive examples of sound evaluation studies revealing some further knowledge on radicalization prevention are worth mentioning. For example, a first meta-analysis of existing evaluations was presented recently by Jugl et al. (2021). They integrated eight quantitative primary studies with at least acceptable methodological standards (three with control group designs). Overall, these studies yielded a moderate effect size on different radicalization and extremism outcomes (d = 0.50). Although the number of studies was clearly limited and does not allow sound conclusions about what works best, the authors did conclude that the best-working programs are those with social-learning elements and approaches with mixed target groups as a combination of primary, secondary, and tertiary prevention in the sense of a contact intervention (Beelmann & Lutterbach, 2020; Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006). In addition, Jugl et al. (2021) pointed to related fields of prevention such as antisocial behavior and crime in which radicalization prevention probably can profit from the extensive literature in this field (Beelmann & Raabe, 2009; Farrington, Gaffney, Lösel, & Ttofi, 2017).

Two further experimental studies have been conducted recently in Germany. Walsh and Gansewig (2019) evaluated a school-based workshop conducted by a former extremist who dropped out of his extremist group. The study had a randomized controlled design, using multimethod assessment and follow-up measures. Unfortunately, the workshop could not report positive effects on right-wing attitudes, violence, and crimes—probably because this was only a less intensive intervention with only one 4-hour session. Hence, very short programs even when conducted with good intentions, obviously do not guarantee significant effects. In contrast, Beelmann and Karing (2015) have reported results of a long-term follow-up of their prejudice prevention program PARTS for elementary school children. The program was conducted in elementary schools within a block-randomized, controlled trial combining an experimental and longitudinal study starting in Grade 2 with 7- to 9-year-old school children and ending at the age of 14 to 16. The program PARTS consists of fifteen 45-min sessions with three modules (intercultural knowledge, reading and discussing indirect contact stories, and promotion of social-cognitive skills such as empathy and perspective taking; Beelmann, 2018). More than 5 years after the termination of the program, the program participants—now aged between 14 and 16 years (n = 173)—showed several significant differences in prejudice and radicalization outcomes compared to the control group (n = 148). For example, they showed lower negative evaluations of ethnic outgroups (effect size d = 0. 36), lower levels of intolerance against social diversity (d = 0.30), lower national-authoritarian attitudes (d = 0.32), and lower levels of contact to right-wing materials and groups (d = 0.18). The final result, although marginally significant and on a low intensity level, is especially noteworthy, because contact with radical peers and extremist groups seems to be an important risk factor for the ideologization of young people (e.g., LaFree, Jensen, James, & Safer-Lichtenstein, 2018; Vergani, Iqbal, Ilbahar, & Barton, 2018; Wolfowicz, Litmanovitz, Weisburd, & Hasisi, 2020).

In sum, the results of reviews and a few sound primary studies illustrate that an early developmentally founded prevention can have long-lasting effects on radicalization parameters. However, looking at the entire field of radicalization prevention, there is still a paucity of knowledge on how to keep young people away from entering radicalized developmental trajectories. Therefore, we shall continue to outline several further opportunities based on the concept of developmental prevention (Beelmann, 2012).

The Concept of Developmental Radicalization Prevention

The term developmental prevention has its roots in applied developmental and prevention science as well as in the tradition of positive youth development in a lifelong perspective (Lerner, Jacobs, & Wertlieb, 2005). It refers to measures or programs designed to promote positive development or to prevent undesired pathways based on tested developmental theories and empirical knowledge about normal and deviant developmental processes from birth to adulthood (Kurtines et al., 2008). For radicalization prevention, this includes:

  • Relying on causal developmental factors that impact on or buffer against radicalization (risk and protective factors)

  • Considering age-related differences and trajectories of radicalization processes (including level and rang-order stabilities)

  • Applying developmental theories of radicalization that explain intraindividual differences and interindividual differences within intraindividual change—that is, developmental differences depending on moderators (e.g., gender, relevant subgroups, social context) and mediators (e.g., cognitive development, identity development, etc.) that promote or buffer radicalization processes

  • Following general developmental principles and theories that deliver an understanding of developmental processes and dynamics (e.g., Bronfenbrenner, 1992; Sameroff, 2009)

  • Considering a perspective on individual change along with social and societal change and taking a social policy perspective (e.g., Wilson, Hayes, Biglan, & Embry, 2014)

Based on these considerations, we have proposed a new social-developmental model of radicalization (see Beelmann, 2020). We defined radicalization as a process by which an individual becomes a politically, religiously, or in some other way motivated extremist. We defined extremism as a significant deviation in attitudes and behavior from certain system-related norms and values of the political constitution (human rights, democracy, and rule of law). The model is based as an integrated summary of diverse information sources such as general models of problem behavior (e.g., Jessor, 2016), special radicalization theories (McCauley & Mouskalenko, 2011, 2017; Kruglanski, Bélanger, & Gunaratna, 2019; Kruglanski et al., 2014); fundamental motivational and social-psychological theories of human attitudes and behavior (Borum, 2011 a, b); specific theories on normal and deviant development of identity, prejudice, and other characteristics (e.g., Crocetti, 2018; Raabe & Beelmann, 2011); research on risk and protective factors for radicalization (e.g., Emmelkamp, Asscher, Wissink, & Stams, 2020; Lösel, King, Bender, & Jugl, 2018; Jahnke, Abad Borger, & Beelmann, 2021; Wolfowicz et al., 2020); and the results of relevant studies on preventing radicalization (see above). According to this radicalization model, extremism emerges within a risk-protection process that takes three developmental steps (see Figure 1): The first step is characterized by an interplay between risk factors for and protective factors against radicalization on a societal, social, and individual level. If developmental processes result in an imbalance between risk and protective factors, this will lead to four so-called proximal radicalization processes that evolve their full dynamics mainly between young adolescence and early adulthood. The four proximal processes concern:

  1. (1)

    identity problems as the motivational base characterized by an unfulfilled need for appreciation expressed in feelings of injustice, marginalization, insignificance, threatened identity, or specific identity constellations such as narcissism (see Hogg & Blaylock, 2014; Kruglanski et al., 2014);

  2. (2)

    prejudice and negative intergroup attitudes and behavior as the social and social-cognitive link for cognitions, emotions, and behavior that contain negativity toward and de-evaluation of members of social outgroups (e.g., »foreigner«; Brown, 2010);

  3. (3)

    extremist narratives, beliefs, and ideology as the legitimation base for prejudice, inequality, and the use of violence and illegitimate means for political purposes; and

  4. (4)

    antisocial development as the development of attitudes and behavior that mark rule-breaking of age-appropriate informal and formal norms and values.

These four processes are the psychological core of the radicalization of young people during the development from childhood up to the early and middle adulthood.

Figure 1 
A social-developmental model of radicalization

Figure 1

A social-developmental model of radicalization

Naturally, these four proximal processes can occur in various ways (i.e., based on different risk-protective factor combinations) and in various strengths. A potentially high risk for developing extremist attitudes and behavior may emerge if all four processes attain a certain critical value and if they are triggered by crises in the social context (e.g., societal conflict, individual victimization). In addition, depending on their trajectory and their degree, we can probably differentiate between various radicalization pathways and trajectories—for example, between different types of extremism (e.g., right-wing, left-wing, religious), between different subgroups (»follower« vs. »leader«; see Jasko & LaFree, 2019), or between different manifestations (extremist attitudes, extremist offenses, terrorist attacks). However, up to now, we have only a few sound longitudinal studies (e.g., Nivette, Eisner, & Ribeaud, 2017) and lack empirical verification of these issues.

Nonetheless, much is known about the development of the four proximal processes themselves. As outlined in Figure 2, all branches contain special sensitive periods during the development from childhood to adulthood that can serve as eligible phases for applying prevention measures. Naturally, this does not mean that other developmental periods are unimportant for radicalization processes and its prevention. Rather, they mark identified periods of high developmental dynamics that possess a high sensitivity for external stimulation and therefore a potentially high impact as a »window of opportunity« (Masten, Long, Kuo, McCormick, & Desjardins, 2009).

Figure 2 
Sensitive periods (in gray boxes) for the four proximal radicalization processes.

Figure 2

Sensitive periods (in gray boxes) for the four proximal radicalization processes.

Figure 2 also gives some indication on the order in which the proximal radicalization processes can be expected to occur. Starting at preschool age, an early antisocial development (»early starters« or a »life-long persistent trajectory,« see Fairchild et al., 2013) marks the beginning of a progredient radicalization with a high probability of heterotypical continuation during the whole period of childhood and adolescence (Moffitt, 2015). In addition, adolescence is another sensitive period for antisocial development because of the high prevalence of »adolescence-limited« and »late-starter« trajectories. However, the risk of stable behavior problems is somewhat lower compared to »early starters« in general, but probably also with respect to radicalization processes (Fairchild et al., 2013). Within prejudice development, research has found a characteristic decrease around the age of 7 to 10 years (Raabe & Beelmann, 2011). Any failure of this to occur for different reasons (e.g., low empathy or a lack of intergroup experiences) could be viewed as the second developmental step toward radicalization. Early adolescence, as a prominent period for identity formation (Crocetti, 2018), holds the risk of identity problems if, for example, young people do not find opportunities for identity exploration or are exposed to rejection and discrimination. A final consequence of these steps can be an increase in the probability of approaching extremist groups and adopting their narratives, beliefs, and ideology during these »impressionable years« of civic development and political socialization (Sears & Levy, 2003).

Of course, it should be mentioned that this prototypic developmental course of radicalization can show great interindividual variation. This applies not only to the assignment of the proximal processes to the age of individuals but also the sequence of the proximal processes themselves. For example, identity problems can also emerge at later ages (e.g., in adulthood as a consequence of losing one’s job). However, the probability of a permanent identity crisis depends largely on whether or not individuals have developed a diverse and reflected identity in their earlier development. In a similar way, radicalization processes can vary according to influences of the social context that can serve as triggers and accelerators of proximal processes (Doosje et al., 2016). For example, one can imagine that individuals with a high risk for radicalization will be protected in times of generally favorable economic living conditions, but will become radicalized at later ages if these conditions are no longer given. Nonetheless, because most individuals have been radicalized by the age of 30 (Borum, 2011b), later radicalization is comparably unlikely, even though the impact of fundamental societal crises such as forced migration, climate change, and economic inequality have increased within the last decade and will probably increase even further in the future.

With these conceptual premises, we shall now turn to research on prevention principles and programs that try to buffer radicalization processes and trajectories by addressing the four proximal radicalization processes from a developmental or ontogenetic perspective.

Developmental Prevention Approaches

Prevention programs can be directed toward all known risk or protective factors on Level 1 of the outlined radicalization model. However, because correlations between risk and protective factors and extremism outcomes are only low and causal processes are quite unspecific and characterized by both equi- and multifinality, it seems more promising for prevention initiatives to address the four proximal processes with their clear causal connection to radicalization. In addition, developmentally founded prevention activities should be oriented toward natural development within the field considered, and we assume that the sensitive periods for the proximal processes outlined here provide the best timing for prevention programs. This runs somewhat counter to principles such as »early is better,« because some prevention approaches need a certain level of development (e.g., specific cognitive competencies) before they can be applied soundly. Hence, prevention initiatives should be oriented toward the principle of »timely and developmentally appropriate« (Beelmann, 2012).

Bearing these considerations in mind and based on our developmental radicalization model (Beelmann, 2020), we shall now turn to promising prevention principles and prevention approaches within a twofold presentation. First, we shall give an overview of central prevention principles and aims within the four proximal process areas (see Table 2). These principles and aims provide a more general preventive orientation independent from programs and approaches that corresponds to integrated concepts of positive youth development (e.g., Biglan, 2015, Lerner, 2004, Scales & Leffert, 2004). Second, we shall briefly outline the evidence on different approaches and programs that have been applied within the fields of proximal radicalization processes (Table 3Table 3). It should be noted, however, that how far these programs and approaches reduce radicalization and lower extremism outcomes has yet to be tested. Instead, they are evaluated in terms of their primary outcomes that should have at least some impact on the radicalization processes as well. In addition, as in every summary, we have to skip differential outcomes and details that would be required for a differentiated discussion on the application of these programs (see for a more comprehensive debate; Beelmann et al., 2021).

Table 1

Important prevention principles according to the four proposed proximal processes of radicalization

Proximal processes Prevention principles and aims
Identity problems –Provide opportunities to establish an evolved, diverse, and reflected identity for young people and prevent adopted, unilateral, inflexible, unreflected social identities

–Create a sense of belonging and prevent young people experiencing rejection and discrimination
Prejudice –Provide positive experiences of diversity including positive contact experiences and intergroup friendships

–Prevent excessive identification with fixed social categories (nationality, ethnicity, gender, etc.)

–Promote abilities such as empathy and perspective taking; establish norms based on human rights

Extremist attitudes, beliefs, and ideologies –Encourage developmentally appropriate and individually tailored responsibilities for the social mediation of universal (fairness, equity, justice) and political values (democracy, human rights)

–Teach the handling of digital media and the problems they raise (not technical)
Antisocial development –Strengthen social learning (including social rules and norms)

–Provide a consistent reaction to rule-breaking behavior and prevent entry into deviant antisocial groups

–Provide psychological and practical support for high-risk groups

In the field of identity, we need to provide young people with opportunities and support to explore and test various identity-relevant areas of life (school, leisure activity, sport, culture, politics, friends, hobbies etc.) so that they can build up a healthy self-concept and construct a diverse and reflected identity (Crocetti, 2018). This is especially important for young people between the ages of 12 and 18; but, of course, also beyond that age. Children and adolescents (and adults too) have a need to belong (Baumeister & Leary, 1995) and to experience affiliation and significance (Kruglanski et al., 2019). Hence, it is necessary to avoid repeated experiences of failure or social rejection and discrimination without any opportunity to solve such problems constructively. Likewise, we should prevent the adoption of identity concepts consisting of single inflexible characteristics (nationality, religion, gender) that are held to be important across all social contexts. Such identities are easily threatened and can lead, at least when permanent, to identity problems. A number of different prevention approaches and programs aim to strengthen the self-concept and identity (Table 3). For example, self-concept interventions are likely to increase a positive self-concept for those individuals who already had low self-confidence (O’Mara, Marsh, Craven, & Debus, 2006). The same holds for outdoor activities (Bowen & Neill, 2013) especially for older target groups. Sport has massive effects on physical health, but its potential to strengthen the self-concept is perhaps limited to noncompetitive sports, because competition could harm when negative experiences prevail (Spruit et al., 2016). A relatively new approach to promote identity-related processes is self-affirmation interventions in which participants have to select a certain number of individually important values from a presented list (e.g., family, friends, sport) and write short texts on these values (Cohen & Sherman, 2014). This should lead to more reflected and diverse identities and lower the vulnerability to identity threats. However, up to now, these effects have been confirmed only in short-term experimental studies (Sweeney & Moyer, 2015). Nonetheless, the concept could perhaps be used as an additional exercise within the framework of more comprehensive programs. Finally, we should say a word on social work practice and cultural activities that probably have great potentials to support and strengthen the self-concept and identity formation of young people. Unfortunately, extended and sound evaluation research on these broadband activities does not exist.

Positive experiences of diversity based on contact and cross-group friendships are probably the best way to prevent prejudice development (Table 2). In addition, an exaggerated positive evaluation of social categories—especially those with fixed affiliation (nationality, gender)—should be avoided. This does not mean that group-based identities are not desirable. In fact, belonging to a social group is indeed a source of essential social bonding. However, there is a narrow line between sound group-related belonging and excessive identification. As a basic rule, identification should not lead to a de-evaluation of social outgroups, and the ingroup should therefore be viewed as different but not superior. Finally, prejudice prevention could also be buffered by promoting competencies such as empathy and perspective taking as well as the establishment of moral values such as fairness, equity, and justice. Programs against prejudice are manifold (Beelmann & Lutterbach, 2020). Particularly positive effects have resulted from contact interventions (Lemmer & Wagner, 2015; Pettigrew & Tropp, 2006), and this holds for a broad range of applications across types, settings, target groups, and potentially prejudiced and discriminated outgroups. There is also empirical support for multicultural and antibias programs, although to a lower extent in terms of the number and outcomes of sound evaluation studies (Bezrukova, Spell, Perry, & Jehn, 2016; Paluck & Green, 2009). Media campaigns are a further and widely applied measure to lower prejudice. However, several studies have pointed to the risk of negative side effects (e.g., increased perception of threat, higher prejudice in the program group) if certain design rules are violated (e.g., using a negative instead of a positive social context, expressing similarities between ingroup and outgroup instead of differences; see Vrij, Akehurst, & Smith, 2003). Finally, a large range of social-cognitive programs also reveal significant effects on prejudice reduction (Beelmann & Heinemann, 2014) especially those that address the promotion of empathy and perspective taking as well as the mediation of basic social norms and values (e.g., justice).

To protect young people from extremist narratives, beliefs, and ideologies, we should provide them with age-appropriate opportunities to engage in commitment to the social community. Respective measures should allow them to learn a sense of responsibility for fair and just social interactions, but also the competence to claim human and political rights in a socially acceptable way. In general, socialization agents should promote a distribution of values such as fairness, equity, and justice as basic norms of civilized societies. These are cultural achievements that must be learned, just like the political values of democracy and human rights. Based on the increasing importance of online communication (internet, social media), it is essential for young people to learn about the problems and risks involved in using these communication and information channels. Without these competencies, they can easily become victims of extremist movements and their interests. Several prevention approaches are designed to meet these objections (Table 3). For example, research on civic education (Goren & Yemini, 2017; Manning & Edwards, 2014), character and value education (Berkowitz & Bier, 2007; Jeynes, 2019), and service-learning programs (Celio, Durlak, & Dymnicki, 2011) provide sound evidence that young people can learn social responsibilities, establish human values, and show more prosocial behavior. However, one problem that remains is the difficulty in recruiting at-risk groups, pointing to the necessity to make participation in these programs more attractive. Trainings in media competence are also promising. However, research on outcomes is limited (Blayer, 2019) and should be extended to establishing an enlightened »digital citizenship« (Reynolds, 2017). One possible content of digital education lies in learning to argue against extremist agitation via counternarratives (Briggs & Feve, 2013). These strategies have been used on- and offline and outcomes are positive (Braddock & Dillard, 2016) although sound evaluations studies are rare.

Finally, to prevent antisocial developments, societies should be committed to the general objective of offering opportunities not only for academic but also for social learning and, moreover, providing special support for high-risk families who are affected by multiple social risk factors. This is particularly important to remove young people who are at risk from deviant and extremist peer groups. It also includes attractive offers for leisure activities and opportunities to assume responsibility (see above). Special importance should be addressed to the mediation of social rules and a consistent reaction to rule breaking and antisocial behavior by diverse developmental agents (parents, schools, youth services). However, in the field of radicalization and from the perspective of a democratic state, the threshold between desirable political activities that are sometimes expressed in illegal (rule breaking) behavior (e.g., civil disobedience), and radicalized antisocial development is not easy to determine. It is especially unclear whether this should be viewed as activities in the sense of (more or less inappropriate) civic engagement, which should be generally supported (but without accepting illegal behavior), or as the beginning of a problematic radicalization process in the sense of our definition that call for an early and consist reaction from the police, courts, and other authorities. The distinction between political activism and radicalization have been discussed intensively (e.g., Moskalenko & McCauley, 2009) and answers depend largely on the seriousness of offenses (and possible victims), the underlying values of the activities within the social context (i.e., what are the real aims of the activities?), and finally on the biographic or developmental history of the young person or the group under consideration. Although strong research on the differentiation between political activism and radicalization is rare, our radicalization model does suggest that a long history of (political and unpolitical) antisocial development is the real proximal risk factor for extremism and not occasional antisocial behavior driven by a positive goal orientation (e.g., human rights, environmental protection, justice, equality, etc.). This does not inevitably mean that these behaviors are acceptable or should be ignored by law enforcement, but that they should probably not be treated under the heading of radicalization and extremism.

However, going beyond the discussion on the reactions to more or less deviant political activities, a large number of approaches and programs for preventing antisocial developments have been developed during the last decades (e.g., Farrington et al., 2017; Welsh & Farrington 2012). Several programs have been evaluated extensively, resulting in numerous comprehensive meta-analyses on the state of the art (Beelmann & Raabe, 2009; Farrington et al., 2017). In general, social training programs (e.g., Beelmann & Lösel, 2020), parent training programs (e.g., Piquero et al., 2016), and early intervention programs for high-risk families (e.g., Dekovics et al., 2011; Reynolds et al., 2010) have demonstrated high effectiveness although not without any limitations (e.g., implementation problems in parent trainings). Evidence on school- and community-based strategies (e.g., antibullying programs, community that cares) is somewhat lower. However, positive outcomes have been achieved here too (e.g., Gaffney, Ttofi, & Farrington, 2019; Hawkins et al., 2009).

Table 2:

Overview of proposed prevention approaches and programs to prevent proximal developmental radicalization processes

Approach/Program Overall



age groups1
Prevention of identity problems
Self-concept interventions + EA, AD Not indicated for target groups/young people with high self-esteem
Outdoor-activities/Sport +/O AD, EAH Not always effective (e.g., not within competitive sport)
Self-affirmation programs + AD, EAH Only short-term effects
Social work practices ? AD, EAH Only theoretical potentials; outcomes depend on implementation and relationship quality
Cultural activities (theater, dance, music) ? AA Only theoretical potentials; active participation
Prejudice prevention
Contact interventions ++ AA Broad empirical confirmation; contact conditions important; suitable for different kinds of contact.
Diversity, multicultural, and antibias programs + AD, EAH Partially cognitive demanding and therefore not suitable for all target groups
Media campaigns +/- AD, EAH, ADH Focus on the rules of persuasive communication or social marketing
Social-cognitive learning programs ++ EA, EAD Highest effects for programs promoting empathy/perspective taking, norms, and values (e.g., fairness)
Preventing extremist narratives, beliefs or ideologies
Civic education + AD, EAH, AH Problems in recruiting at-risk groups; effects of information-based programs are limited
Service learning,

character education
+ AD, EAH, AH Problems in recruiting at-risk groups
Media competence + AD, EAH, AH Only little empirical research; outcomes mainly on knowledge not on behavior; partially cognitively demanding
Counternarratives + AD, EAH, AH Only little empirical research; outcomes mainly on knowledge; partially cognitively demanding
Preventing antisocial development
Social training programs ++ PA, EA, EAD Smaller effects on antisocial behavior than for social competence outcomes
Parent training ++ PA, EA Long-term effects vague; implementation problems
Early intervention ++ PA Impressive long-term effects; requires intensive resources
School- or community-based prevention approaches + AA High implementation requirements

Notes. ++ = highly evidence-based, + = evidence-based, O = some indication for positive outcomes, +/- = mixed outcomes. 1 Ages should be viewed as rough estimations of the developmental status. AA = all age groups (up to 35 years), PA = preschool age (up to 6 years), EA = elementary school age (7 to 12 years), EAD = early adolescence (12 to 15 years), LAD = late adolescence (16 to 18 years), AD = adolescence (12 to 18 years), EAH = emerging adulthood (18 to 25 years), ADH = adulthood (20 to 35 years).

In sum, several evidence-based opportunities to buffer young people from radicalization based on developmentally founded strategies could be applied with some probability for prospects of success. The field of prejudice prevention and the prevention of antisocial behavior provide the best opportunities here, whereas evidence for preventing identity problems and the acquisition of extremist ideologies needs to be gained from future scientific research. However, simply providing prevention programs alone is not enough. In recent years, international research has demonstrated impressively that prevention depends not only on good programs but also on the ­implementation modalities and the quality of implementation (Beelmann & Karing, 2014; Ghate, 2016). When carrying out interventions in childhood and adolescence, for example, the focus should not be solely on imparting knowledge, but additionally on ensuring that programs offer concrete practical exercises and address the emotions of young people. In addition, a positive focus on strengthening skills and competencies often proves to be a better strategic approach than applying the avoidance perspective frequently associated with prevention. Such a perspective also prevents stigmatization effects—which are a real risk in radicalization prevention (Madriaza & Ponsot, 2015). Moreover, it is also necessary to consider the numerous variables that can influence the implementation quality, especially if the aim is to integrate programs into regular psychosocial and educational care. In addition, more successful ­strategies for recruiting children, adolescents, and families who are particularly stressed and in urgent need of help, the establishment of a sustainable service structure, and the dynamic adaptation of programs to real-world practice are just three of the many important topics pointing to the major challenges facing any successful implementation of prevention measures (Beelmann, Malti, Noam, & Sommer, 2018; Malti, Noam, Beelmann, & Sommer, 2016).

Despite all the prospects that the concept of developmental prevention of radicalization outlined above may elicit, it is still necessary to mention some societal aspects that impede the implementation of prevention principles and programs. For years, for example, we can observe how social inequality is growing in many societies, and how this is a constant source of social comparison processes in which certain population groups do poorly in almost all areas­ (Wilkinson & Pickett, 2009). Making such negative experiences can be a major source of identity problems that can lead, at least in the long term, to serious social problems. Because the trend toward increased social inequality seems to be unbroken, it can be assumed that this situation is partially due to functional principles of the economic system and therefore difficult to change. Massive economic interests often stand in the way of rational prevention strategies and thus the ­opportunities for young people to develop. For example, one can ask whether the ­demand to strengthen media skills is not only rejected by extremist groups with their indoctrination intentions but also ­runs counter to the business­ models of influential digital corporations and an advertising industry ­geared toward consumption. Admittedly, this touches on fundamental issues in our society and ­on shaping its future in ways that affect all areas of life. Nonetheless, when thinking about this more concretely and pragmatically, we should­­ not underestimate such interests when implementing and establishing preventive­ measures and, if necessary, we should actively include them in our efforts.


This research was supported by grants from the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (Grand No. 13N14284) and the Crime Prevention Council of Lower Saxony (Hannover).


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Published Online: 2021-08-20
Published in Print: 2021-09-14

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