But take a look at a newspaper from 30 years ago and you’ll find a different danger constantly in front of parents’ faces – the prevalence and peril of cults.
These stories don’t seem to grip the nation like they once did. While we still hear of occasional groups, such as one in New York that has been branding young women, are cults still as rampant?
Yes, they are, according to Eric Sweitzer, M.T.S., Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and director of the Charis Counseling Centers in Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
Sweitzer is also a consulting psychologist for MeadowHaven, a facility in Lakeville, Mass., that provides refuge and treatment for former cult members.
“Cults are on the rise,” he said, “so it is a conundrum why, in general, the media is not covering them as much as they used to in the days of Jonestown or David Koresh. I think it may be that the definition of cults has broadened and the term can encompass much smaller groups as well which don’t draw as much attention.”
Steven Hassan, M.Ed. LMHC, NCC, founding director of the Freedom of Mind Resource Center in Newton, Mass., has another reason that we may not see as much about cults in the news.
“It was politically incorrect for a time to use the word ‘cult,’” he said. “So, media like the New York Times used the word ‘sects.’ So they haven’t gone away. We just don’t hear the word as often.”
While it is not clear how many cults exist in the world, the International Cultic Studies Association has more than 4,000 groups listed in its files. In a 2008 study referenced on the site, of 695 psychologists interviewed 13.1% had direct or familial experience with cults and 33% had treated someone who had been involved in a cult.
The ICS defines a cult as “an ideological organization, held together by charismatic relationships, and demanding high levels of commitment.”
Hassan, who was once a member of the Unification Church, (nicknamed the “Moonies” in reference to its leader, Sun Myung Moon), has developed a simple model that he uses to help people identify cults.
The BITE chart outlines the main components of a cult: Behavior control, Information control, Time control and Emotional control.
“There is a continuum of groups that can be labelled as a cult. Any group may use some of the BITE methods,” he said, explaining that not all groups do every aspect but the bottom line is how a person’s ability to make decisions is impacted.
Contrary to popular definition, not all cults are religion-based. Some may be political or financial, racist or personality cults. Today, terrorist groups have also found the internet prime ground for sowing seeds of indoctrination or radicalization.
Locally there are smaller groups that Sweitzer identifies as cults – from one started by a former Marine on the Cape to another run by two brothers in Uxbridge. What’s typical of these, and pretty much all cults, is the personality outline of the cult leader.
“The top dog is usually male but I have heard of some run by women,” said Sweitzer. “They are generally classic narcissistic personalities.”
Indoctrination techniques are surprisingly similar, he added, as if there is some “master class” on how to run a cult. New members are often “love bombed,” praised and welcomed. As they become more committed, they begin to find themselves reprimanded for minor transgressions and more rules are imposed.
With indoctrinating new people, cults typically target young men and women, although all age groups are affected, and seek out people who are going through a difficult phase in their personal life.
“As a psychologist, we know that anyone can be drawn into a cult,” said Sweitzer. “But, there are levels of vulnerability. With young people, college kids in their 20s, they are often looking for something bigger than themselves to belong to. Many are disenfranchised to begin with or have come from an unstable or abusive background.”
“They know how to look for people,” he added, sharing a story about a former cult member who was asked to recruit on college campuses. “They started with kids who were flunking out, dropping classes. The recruiting is geared towards these types.”
For a therapist, it can be hard to identify those who have been in, or are in, a cult. Asking the right questions is a start.
“Identifying is the key thing,” said Hassan. “You can’t just ask if they were in a cult because many people don’t even realize it. Ask them to talk about their relationship to spirituality and how strict a church or religious group they were involved in may have been.’”
The ICS has developed a list of characteristics of cult groups for therapists to understand to be more knowledgeable about cults. For more information, visit http://www.icsahome.com.
Catherine Robertson Souter is a freelance writer and social media agent based in New Hampshire. A contributor to New England Psychologist since its inception, she previously wrote for Massachusetts Psychologist among other media outlets.