There is rising concern about the sexual activities and relationships of young people. These concerns are not new, but the rapid expansion of technological possibilities has changed the nature of the debate. Teenagers are the most technology-savvy group in the UK, with much of their social lives conducted online, and it is clear that young people have access to a much less moderated world than previously existed. It no longer makes sense to separate online and offline activities – digital activity is an integral part of young people’s relationships.
On the positive side, easy access to digital technologies allows young people to socialise with their friends, find like-minded peers, and access supportive and diverse information and networks in an empowering way, independent of parents and adults. Particularly when it comes to learning about sex and relationships, awkward questions can be easily answered.
But on the negative side, young people are revealing ever more information about themselves, and traditional ‘offline’ occurrences such as bullying, relationship break-ups and social pressures are magnified and recorded online. Relationships can be more intensive, with more opportunities for contact and less visibility or moderation by adults, and relationships and friendships often create permanent digital content. Access to adult or extreme material is fundamentally different and much easier. And quality information, clear social norms, and opportunities for redress are less present in digital spaces than usually exists offline.
These changes have left a widening gap between those who have a responsibility to educate and guide young people and the behaviours and norms created by rapidly evolving technology. Parents and teachers didn’t grow up with the technologies that have become part of young people’s lives, and many teachers lack the guidance and structural support to teach about these issues.
This paper contributes to this debate by turning directly to teenagers to explore how they believe young people could be better supported in developing healthy and positive relationships.
It is not straightforward, with the debate touching on large and difficult issues of gender and sexual politics. Any discussion of how best to support young people negotiating new or emerging social and sexual norms is closely bound up with cultural values, individual maturity and personal attitudes and beliefs about relationships.
Our aim is not to take a stance on the moral rights or wrongs of young people and relationships (where they are within the bounds of legality). We begin by highlighting where the evidence indicates more could be done to support young people’s happiness and safety in formative relationships in a digital world, before turning to young people themselves to canvas their opinions on these issues. Finally we reflect on some of the challenges for policymakers.
Young people’s voices
Our findings are based on a representative survey with young people.1 Key findings include:
- Eight out of 10 say it is too easy for young people to accidentally see pornography online.
- Seven out of 10 say ‘accessing pornography was seen as typical’ while they were at school; the consensus view is that this is typical between the ages of 13 and 15.
- Almost half (46 per cent) say ‘sending sexual or naked photos or videos is part of everyday life for teenagers nowadays’.
- Seven out of 10 (72 per cent) say ‘pornography leads to unrealistic attitudes to sex’ and that ‘pornography can have a damaging impact on young people’s views of sex or relationships’ (70 per cent).
- Two-thirds of young women (66 per cent) and almost half of young men (49 per cent) agree that ‘it would be easier growing up if pornography was less easy to access for young people’.
- Two-thirds (66 per cent) say ‘people are too casual about sex and relationships’.
- Almost eight out of 10 young women (77 per cent) say ‘pornography has led to pressure on girls or young women to look a certain way’, while almost as many (75 per cent) say ‘pornography has led to pressure on girls and young women to act a certain way’.
The survey results also reflect differences in the views of young men and women.
- More young men (45 per cent) than young women (29 per cent) agree that ‘pornography helps young people learn about sex’. Young women are more likely to disagree (49 per cent) than young men (28 per cent) with the same statement.
- Half as many young men (21 per cent) as young women (40 per cent) strongly agree that ‘pornography leads to unrealistic attitudes to sex’. Half as many young men (18 per cent) as young women (37 per cent) strongly agree that ‘pornography encourages society to view women as sex objects’.
On solutions, there was a clear majority view that sex and relationship advice and support should be taught at school and should be high quality and led by experts. This echoes wider research showing that too many young people report not feeling equipped to manage issues they face in sex and relationships. Findings from our survey include:
- More than eight out of 10 (86 per cent) agree that sex and relationship advice should be taught in schools. More than a third (37 per cent) say sex and relationship advice should be taught from the beginning of primary school and almost half (49 per cent) from the beginning of secondary school.
- Seven out of 10 (68 per cent) 18-year-olds think that sex and relationship education should be taught by a trained expert; 40 per cent think that it should be taught by an external visitor who doesn’t usually teach at the school, while just 19 per cent think it should be taught by a teacher from the school.
The wider literature highlights concerns about the ease with which pornography can be accessed, that this pornography may be having an impact on shaping expectations and norms and behaviours of young people – especially in the absence of high-quality sex and relationship education – and that ‘sexting’ (self-generated sexually explicit content) is now the norm. Our results reflect this wider literature and show that, although it is a complex area, the prominence of pornography in shaping norms and behaviours is creating pressures for many young people.
The following proposals draw on our research and outline policy challenges and directions.
Sex and relationship education should be taught in every school by specialists, and must be broader in scope
The role of sex and relationship education (SRE) in schools is fiercely debated. There is broad consensus that it should exist, but it is not universally accepted that it should be compulsory. However, the case in its favour remains strong, and the primary research presented here from young people themselves strengthens further the case for making SRE compulsory.
But it is not enough to simply have SRE education in schools. Schools need to be more effective in commissioning and providing high-quality content, delivered by experts. Our survey results show that there is a significant gap between what is being taught and what young people want. SRE needs to be about relationships, not just sex, and it should better reflect the reality of young people’s life by covering LGBT issues, digital content, bullying, access to pornography and expectations of sex.
Parents, educators and young people need a single point to access advice and support
Although school is an important source of information for young people, it is not the only one. As our research shows, young people gain their knowledge from a variety of sources and this is likely to remain the case. Parents need to feel better equipped to discuss sex and relationships with their children, and have a better understanding of the impact of technology in this area.
Administered or run by local authorities, family information services (FIS) provide a directory of local services for parents. They provide an existing point of access through which information, links and follow-up services could be provided to young people, parents and teachers. Some local areas already provide good links to support on sex and relationships, but others should follow suit and ensure that information is accessible and easy to find for young people, parents and teachers. Others should improve or expand their current offer.
Local authorities’ public sexual health responsibility for young people should be broadened
As health and wellbeing boards become firmly entrenched in the local authority landscape, there is an opportunity to ensure that strategies are developed that provide commissioners with options to deliver appropriate services. Many strategies already include the need to continue to reduce the incidence of teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections (STIs). However, there is scope within existing strategies to develop measures on wider health and wellbeing. This could be, for example, to ensure that relationship counselling is available or that extra-curricular activities provide a space for young people to discuss the role of technology and the internet. It is clear from our research and the wider evidence base that young people are facing physical and emotional issues.
Commissioners should be working with young people to continuously evaluate existing provision and identify areas for improvement. There have been rapid changes, and policy and practice have failed to keep pace in providing the most appropriate support.
Of course, these policy ideas must be seen within a wider cultural context. Our research, alongside other evidence, highlights the role of the images, stereotypes and norms that young people are continuously exposed to. It is clear that there is a relationship between this culture and the way that societal and gender norms are set around sex and relationships. The overwhelming concern – reflected in our research – is that easier and wider access to porn and sexually explicit material creates unrealistic norms and assumptions for young men and women in how they should conduct their relationships. It is clear that young people want to talk about sex and relationships and want more support. The challenge is to provide that in a way that is supportive, builds resilience and allows young people to flourish.
1 Based on a representative sample of 500 18-year-olds; survey conducted from 19–27 June 2014.