How should online tools be used in sex and relationships education?

Since becoming members of the Sex Education Forum, we've been excited to join one of their learning and practice days. Jess Bolton went to a workshop that asked how we can make sure the most vulnerable young people are able to access sex and relationships education that meets their needs and thought about how online tools fit in this mix...

Meeting the needs of vulnerable young people is one of the biggest and most important challenges in sex and relationships education (SRE). Failure to meet the needs of vulnerable young people in SRE could lead to them suffering or inflicting abuse. According to the NSPCC, 1 in 20 children in the UK have been sexually abused and this statistic is even higher amongst vulnerable young people. A solid understanding of sex and relationships will allow these people to make healthy decisions about sex, reducing STI rates and unwanted pregnancies in the process.

The clearest thing that came across over during the day-long workshop is that young people are leading the conversation around their sexuality and sexual health and sex educators have to keep up or risk becoming irrelevant. A quick Google search can provide young people with multiple and conflicting answers to any question they can think of, meaning guidance from educators is more important than ever. Shirking complicated issues is increasingly dangerous.

Changing sex and relationships education needs

According to a study carried out by Middlesbrough University, nearly half of young people say that they came into contact with pornography before the age of 14. Internet porn could be missing perspectives of sex and relationships that a young person would need to make informed decisions; thorough sex education needs to start young and address issues such as body image and safe sex head on.

A recent YouGov survey found that only half of 18-24 year olds identify as heterosexual. Fusion, an online publication aimed at young people, did a poll which showed that 50% of young people think that gender is a spectrum, and that some people fall outside conventional categories. SRE needs to reflect this and support people of all genders and sexualities to have a healthy understanding of their bodies, identities and sexualities. Young people who don’t feel represented or acknowledged in their sex education classes are not only at risk of poorer sexual and mental health but might also feel less able to approach their teacher which could lead to safeguarding opportunities being missed.

The fact that SRE is widely reported to be failing to meet these needs is worrying. A number of issues came up over the course of the day about how best to deliver effective SRE for vulnerable young people in face-to-face situations, and they made me think about how an online service might best be able to achieve these things.

The two sides of peer influence

Carlene Firmin, head of the MsUnderstood partnership, gave an incredible talk that highlighted the importance of peer group influence in young people’s behaviour and learning. She discussed the potentially negative effects of group behaviour including peer pressure (which can risk turning into abuse for vulnerable young people) and the ability of groups to isolate their members from adult points of contact in school and home environments.

While the influence young people have over each other can seem a scary prospect to sexual health professionals, especially where the internet is involved, it is clear that young people value each other's support and advice.

The workshop prompted me to have a look at some online communities which harness the potential of peer-to-peer conversation for support and care.

Communities of support

TalkLife is an app which calls itself “a place to talk to people who ‘get’ you”. Young people post thoughts, concerns and questions and their peers respond. The app has a thorough network of volunteer moderators, administrators and a trigger warning system allowing users to filter content. Its thorough safeguarding policy makes it a sound resource for young people to seek advice and support from their peers.  

Young people share secrets, big and small on Whisper

Young people share secrets, big and small on Whisper

Whisper is a platform where young people anonymously disclose things that they might not feel able to say publicly. They then offer each other support and solidarity. HealthUnlocked uses a similar principle to TalkLife to connect people with others who are experiencing similar problems. They claim 7 out of 10 people who use their platform had never spoken to a patient with the same condition before. While Whisper is largely unmoderated, HealthUnlocked communities often have clinicians or knowledgeable charity workers that provide support and prevent misinformation spreading.

Building trust

Harnessing young people’s trust in one another is clearly an important and successful way of managing their learning, but it’s important that they also trust educators. Carlene Firmin’s touched on the concept of trust and what educators can do to build trust in face-to-face situations. The distancing features of the internet can mean it's a difficult medium to build trusting relationships in. A lot of the narrative fed to young people about internet safety is about being wary of who you might be communicating with and how your information might be shared. Remote services need to work hard to reassure users that they are trustworthy, especially if (like us) they are handling sensitive data.

Organisations such as Childline lead the way with their strong brand identity, giving users a clear idea of who they are communicating with. Childline’s slogan “Online. On the phone. Anytime.” is a good example of clear and consistent messaging. The reliability of the information you provide is also crucial to establishing yourself as a trustworthy service.  

When it comes to safeguarding children and young people, it’s also worth following in the footsteps of Talk Life and Whisper by having clear, transparent and visible policies that will reassure parents and other adults with a duty of care.

If you are an educator or work with young people and are interested in using online resources to support vulnerable (or indeed, any) young people, the Sex Education Forum is a good place to start. They have lists of resources or they have training days and can do bespoke training