Understanding social media Relationships and Sex Education in a UK context – By Lisa Garwood-Cross

Relationships and Sex Education (RSE) has been on the UK Governments agenda since Ofsted, the schools regulator, released a report in 2013 titled ‘Not Good Enough Yet: PSHE in schools’i. The report identified that RSE required improvement in a third of primary schools and half of secondary schools visited, with too much emphasis in secondary schools being placed on the mechanics of reproduction, and too little on relationships, the influence of pornography, emotions and understanding healthy sexual relationships. In response to this, the UK Government announced an amendment to the Children and Social Work bill to make RSE compulsory in all secondary schools for the first time, alongside the updating of the statutory teaching guidelines that schools must follow. Following a period of consultation with young people, parents, schools and public health organisations these new guidelines were revealed in 2019 and became compulsory from the 2020/2021 school year which is just now drawing to a close. However last month Ofsted released a rapid review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges that has once again brought Relationships and Sex Education to the forefront. The latest report gives a worrying insight into sexual harassment and assault between young people, and highlights that these issues are far more prevalent than adults may be aware, with girls disproportionately affected. Young people were asked if various types of harmful sexual behaviours happened ‘a lot’ or ‘sometimes’ between people their age. 88% of girls and nearly 49% of boys identified that being sent explicit videos between people their age happened ‘a lot’ or ‘sometimes’, meanwhile 80% of girls and 40% of boys expressed that being put under pressure to provide sexual images of themselves was common. The report also raised concerns of the taking and circulation of photographic or video content between young people without consent. In addition, 64% of girls and 24% of boys reported that unwanted touching happened ‘a lot’ or ‘sometimes’ between people their age, 68% of girls and 27% of boys expressed that feeling pressured to do sexual things they did not want to happened ‘a lot’ or ‘sometimes’, and sexual assault of any kind was noted by 70% of girls and 38% of boys.

Because of this, young people were not happy with the quality of RSE they received and frequently looked elsewhere, as the report states:

Children and young people were rarely positive about the RSHE they had received. They felt that it was too little, too late and that the curriculum was not equipping them with the information and advice they needed to navigate the reality of their lives. Because of these gaps, they told us they turned to social media or their peers to educate each other, which understandably made some feel resentful. As one girl put it, ‘It shouldn’t be our responsibility to educate boys‘.”ii

This report raises significant concerns about RSE not serving the needs of young people, leaving teenagers unprepared for navigating the terrain of relationships and sex. In response to the report the PSHE association called regular RSE lessons vital, saying; ‘we don’t expect pupils to learn algebra or the Norman Conquest via assemblies or awareness days; why should we expect it with consent & respectful relationships?’iii.

Here at the University of Salford, my PhD research is investigating the role that social media RSE content on YouTube plays for young people in seeking and sharing information about relationships and sex. The focus is on understanding the role of the social media influencers who create this content, if they can act as health influencers and if the peer-sharing of this content between young people is a form of peer-education process. The Ofsted report findings suggest young people are already looking to social media and peers to fill voids in their education on sex and relationships, therefore this study provides a closer look at this phenomenon. Health information on YouTube is largely unregulated and in light of the misinformation epidemic on social media during the COVID-19 pandemic there is renewed need to interrogate sources of health information and understand how public health organisations can better partner with social media influencers to provide high-quality digital resources that meet the information needs of young people. Want to be a part of shaping this research?

We are currently recruiting young people aged 13-18 to give their opinions on Social media, influencers and how they seek and share RSE information through an anonymous short 10-minute online survey – the link to the survey is https://salford.onlinesurveys.ac.uk/digital-sre-survey

i OFSTED (2013). Not yet good enough: Personal, social, health and economic education in schools. [online] Ofsted. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/370027/Not_yet_good_enough_personal__social__health_and_economic_education_in_schools.pdf [Accessed 06/07/2021].

ii OFSTED (2021). ‘Review of sexual abuse in schools and colleges’. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/review-of-sexual-abuse-in-schools-and-colleges/review-of-sexual-abuse-in-schools-and-colleges. [Accessed: 06/07/2021]

iii PSHE Association (2021) ‘Ofsted: Harassment rife in schools and RSE given insufficient priority‘ Available at: https://www.pshe-association.org.uk/news-and-blog/blog-entry/ofsted-harassment-rife-schools-and-rse-given [Accessed: 06/07/2021]