Online RSE support is vital

Written by: Catherine Barker | Published:
Catherine Barker CEO, Family Stability Network

Government plans to overhaul relationships education are doomed to fail without online resources to guide teenagers, says Catherine Barker

Do the pupils leaving your school have the skills and knowledge they need to thrive and flourish, both in the next stage of their education or training, and as adults?

Well, in launching the recent consultation on relationships and sex education (RSE), the government stated that it wants “all young people to feel equipped to have healthy and respectful relationships, so they can succeed in adult life in modern Britain”.

If RSE is going to contribute to such success it will need to be about more than a safe context for sex, and it won’t be achieved simply through one or two slots in a crowded curriculum or tutor group programme.

Educators are working with young people who are increasingly influenced by information they find online; they are digital natives and guidance on relationships and sex needs to reflect this if it is going to be relevant.

The Family Stability Network’s (FASTN) survey of 14 to 17-year-olds, undertaken as part of our response to the RSE consultation, found that 78 per cent of teenagers think a long-term, lasting relationship in adult life is at least as important to them as their career ambitions.

They’re right to think that. The relationships they have as adults will have a significant impact on their wellbeing, health, wealth, and in turn on the life chances of any children they may have.

Taking health as an example, the influence of social relationships on life expectancy, for example, are comparable with well-established risk factors such as smoking and alcohol consumption and exceed the influence of other risk factors such as physical inactivity and obesity (Holt-Lunstad et al, 2010).

Schools are used to tackling such issues as obesity, but there is far less support and guidance available to pupils to help them achieve their relationship goals.

We therefore welcome the overhaul of the current guidance, which let’s not forget has been in place since 2000 prior to the invention of Twitter, Snapchat and the multitude of social media channels that our children use on a daily basis.

Young people aged 12 to 15 spend an average of 20 hours-a-week online and social media plays an ever more important role in relationships. This makes securing healthy relationships more complex with uncertainty about commitment known to lead to more anxiety and aggression, and higher risks of break-up.

In 2014, one US government-funded study of teen dating violence found that young people themselves regarded commitment as a relevant concept in understanding relationships and that there was great merit in helping teens to understand and navigate the various areas of ambiguity between the beginning and end of relationships.

This is why we think core concepts such as the nature of commitment and the importance of more intentional decisions about relationships (rather than sliding into them and being held together by constraints and inertia) are important for young people to understand.

Not knowing whether you’re on the same page as someone else, having different degrees of commitment and being unable (or too fearful) to clarify this, are some of the greatest causes of relationship distress.

Dealing with break-ups, sexting, or anxiety about being single cause real mental distress, with one in eight young teenagers reporting symptoms of mental ill health (Office for National Statistics, 2015).

It’s not just a problem for girls. Our earlier survey of 16 to 19-year-old males found that 64 per cent worry about being alone, 61 per cent are scared they will be a disappointment in a relationship, and 55 per cent worry about being laughed at if they’re open about how they feel.

It is therefore no surprise that our experience from listening to and working with young people through our Status Online project is that they increasingly turn to the internet for answers to the questions on relationships and sex that they’re not comfortable discussing with their parents or teachers.

However, the internet can expose them to negative images and ideas about what a relationship should look like. Two-thirds of the 16 to 19 males in our survey said they viewed online porn at least once a week – 41 per cent believed this made it harder to maintain long-term relationships, while an equal number believe watching porn improved relationships.

A study by the Institute for Public Policy Research (Young People, Sex and Relationships: The new norms, August 2014) found that one in five young men selected porn as one of the three main places where they had learned about sex and relationships.

The Family Stability Network with the support of the Relationships Alliance and other charities is therefore calling on the government to establish an Innovation Fund to support the establishment of quality marked information and guidance online that young people can access to support classroom learning.

Our polling of 14 to 17-year-olds found that 58 per cent of them would search for advice and information on relationships online – double the number who would talk to a school teacher or other adult. Without such resources the government’s laudable goal of reforming RSE is doomed to failure.

As David Blow, head of The Ashcombe School in Surrey said: “This review of RSE is an important moment to make sure we give young people the best information and guidance we can in a world which has become increasingly complex. It is very important that classroom teaching is supported by online resources to counter the flow of negative information and role models to which young people are exposed.”

Further information


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