CEOP Talks Relationships: in conversation with Dr. Elly Hanson webinar summary

On Thursday 6th October, we were delighted to host a free webinar with Dr. Elly Hanson, exploring the internet’s impact on young people’s relationships and how education can help young people to build healthy relationships.

Over 300 professionals joined us for the 60 minute discussion, where Dr. Elly along with members of the CEOP Education team answered questions from the audience and shared their insight.

In case you missed it, here’s a summary of some of the key questions asked, and the panel's answers.

What is CEOP Talks Relationships?

CEOP Talks Relationships is a 6 week campaign helping you to educate and support young people in building healthy relationships. Protecting children from online sexual abuse requires helping them to understand what healthy relationships are and how to build them, online and off. We offer a range of free resources that you can use with young people, parents and carers, and colleagues, that help to promote healthy relationships and tackle online sexual harassment, online sexual abuse and non-consensual nude image sharing amongst secondary aged young people. CEOP Talks Relationships will highlight these resources over the 6 week period, linking them to 6 key themes.

How has the internet affected young people’s relationships?

It’s important we highlight the positive ways the internet has impacted young people and their relationships, and the opportunities it presents, as well as the risks.

Many young people say flirting online has helped them when developing new romantic relationships as they have greater control over their communications and they can shape their messages to create ‘playful flirting’. Digital flirting often feels less emotionally risky than face-to-face, as they don’t have to hide or manage their embarrassment if something awkward happens.

For some young people, nude image sharing has become a normal part of growing up. We know from research that not all young people send nude or semi-nude images of themselves, but many young people do receive unwanted images or unwanted requests to send images. For those who do share nudes, it’s not always a negative experience. We should remember this as professionals when dealing with incidents of nude image sharing with young people. Recent research from the PSHE Association and Revealing Reality, ‘Not just flirting’, highlights some of these trends.

There are negative impacts too, with sexual harassment and abuse taking place online. Both the 2021 Ofsted review and Welsh Estyn report detailed the extent of the sexual harassment and abuse that young people may experience. This includes image-based sexual harassment, like being sent unwanted sexual images, as well as being pressured into participating in sexual behaviour online and the non-consensual sharing of nude or semi-nude images.

What direct impacts can viewing sexualised content online, accidentally or intentionally, have on young people and their relationships?

Some young people are viewing pornography and other sexualised media, and this is a concern because research has found that viewing pornography can increase the risk of:

  • Reduced sexual, relational and body dissatisfaction
  • Relationship break ups
  • Finding it difficult to get into a relationship
  • Sexual preoccupation and risky sexual practices

Watching violent pornography may also contribute to the development of attitudes that are supportive of sexual harassment or are sexist and objectifying of people.

Pornography largely portrays a model of sex which is about using other people for personal pleasure and may contain violence, degradation, and other harmful messages. It may promote the idea that in sex, the primary concern is an individual’s own arousal and everyday values (like respect and kindness) don’t always apply. Pornography may also characterise violence and dominance as sexy, and promote the idea that men should be dominant and women submissive in sexual situations.

Watching pornography may influence young people’s developing sexuality, increasing the appeal of objectification and crossing boundaries, rather than intimacy. More detail around this can be found in Dr. Hanson’s ‘Pornography and human futures’ report.

A lot of these points also apply to other sexualised content which can be found online, through social media and other platforms, apps and sites.

How can we support parents and carers to talk to their children about online relationships?

Parents are a core protective factor for children and young people so it’s vital we support them. Our Digital Romance research highlighted that young people want to have open, everyday conversations with their parents about online relationships and related topics.

As professionals working with parents and carers, we need to support them to feel able to have these conversations continually as a part of daily family life. We know the big, ‘sit down’ chats are less effective than the ‘little and often’ approach, and young people often feel most comfortable having conversations when in parallel, when walking the dog, in the car, or gaming together. Websites and resources like ours can be helpful to signpost parents and carers to, so they feel like they have enough knowledge to speak to their children.

As professionals, we should avoid using terminology that shuts down the opportunity to work with groups of parents and carers. They are not ‘hard to reach’, rather the right approach for that parent or carer hasn’t been found yet. Finding different ways to engage parents and carers could involve doing a survey to find out their views or talking to colleagues about what has worked well in the past or what you haven’t tried yet.

Key tips for working with parents and carers on these topics:

  • Don’t overload them – keep it simple with 1-3 pieces of information at any time
  • Avoid using ‘should’ or scaremongering language
  • Approach parents and carers as the expert on their child
  • Don’t give up

Additional research relating to parents and carers talking to their children about online relationships is available from Ofcom and Internet Matters.

What can professionals working with secondary aged young people do to support them in building healthy relationships?

Structured relationships and sex education in schools, as part of a progressive PSHE curriculum, is key in helping young people build healthy relationships. Research with young people who have experienced sexual abuse has shown that they felt education would have made the biggest different to them, both reducing their vulnerabilities online and possibly preventing the people who had abused them doing so. Both the Ofsted review and the government's Violence Against Women and Girls strategy, make recommendations for relationships and sex education that helps young people to develop an understanding of what healthy relationships are, focusing on the positive aspects.

Our recently launched resource, Respecting me, you, us, is a set of 8 lesson plans for 12-14 year olds aims to meet this need, and is designed to support young people in developing healthy relationships and prevent sexual harassment between young people.

The lessons cover various topics, including being a positive bystander, the principles of healthy relationships, and the principles of healthy sexual experiences. The first lesson focuses on values, which are the foundations that underpin all of our relationships. Another lesson focuses on gender norms, exploring stereotypes about how men and women ‘should’ be and how these can be harmful to young people’s relationships.

Lessons like Respecting me, you, us are important, but they must be part of a whole school or setting approach which helps young people to build healthy relationships. Education settings that are aware of problems around sexual harassment and abuse and respond to it create more positive cultures in which young people feel happier, safer, and respected, and where they can build healthy relationships.

Taking a whole school or setting approach might include:

  • Canvasing young people’s views to understand their experiences
  • Clearly communicating acceptable and unacceptable behaviours and language – particularly focusing on positive behaviours young people should be demonstrating
  • Ensuring all young people, and professionals, know how to report sexual abuse and harassment if they experience it
  • Regular training and upskilling for professionals on healthy relationships and how to prevent and respond to sexual harassment
  • Ensuring relationships education forms part of a progressive curriculum approach, where in previous and subsequent years, similar and complementary topics are covered in age-appropriate ways

How different is same sex pornography in its effect on viewers?

We don’t have the same wealth of research about same sex pornography. However, there are some similar trends. Messaging around manipulation, deception, violence and humiliation seems to still be at play in some same sex pornography, with a lack of real intimacy and everyday values (like respect and kindness). We need more research in this area to understand it better.

Are there any areas of the internet’s impact on young people’s relationships that are specific to young people with SEND?

Young people with SEND experience the same things that young people without SEND do. However, their social world or access to making friends might be different to other young people. The internet can be a positive place where they can keep in touch with people they have met and can make new friends. But for young people with communication difficulties, they may find navigating online relationships more difficult, for example, they may struggle with decoding messages that have hidden meaning. Some research has shown that young people with SEND may be more likely to be pressured online or to share nudes than their peers. Relationships education is must be tailored to meet the needs of young people with SEND to help them understand what healthy relationships look like online as well as offline.

We are doing work in this area to make our resources accessible for young people with SEND. Mencap and Childnet offer resources and support for educating young people with SEND on these topics.

How can we support young people who are going through the break-up of a relationship?

Digital Romance found that break-ups are a high risk zone for young people where emotions are heightened and normal values, like respect, are harder to keep hold of. This has an impact on how the break-up happens, but also post-break-up events. Post break-up there is a greater risk of nasty comments, images being shared without consent, monitoring and preoccupation. Strategies for supporting young people could include:

  • Exploring feelings and experiences through break-up scenarios in relationships and sex education, and lessons relating to mental health and emotional regulation
  • Helping them to understand how to hold onto their core values during these experiences
  • Supporting them to understand about how break-ups can take place with empathy, compassion and thought to the other person’s feelings
  • Encouraging them to take time and space to process or ‘mourn’ the break-up
  • Encouraging them to share how they are feeling with someone they trust
  • Exploring the idea of self-distancing – what might your future self say to you about the situation?

How do you get young people to understand the link between the amount of time they spend online and their ability to refocus on reality or be present in the offline world?

It is important not to make a distinction between the ‘online world’ and the ‘real world’ because they aren’t two separate places. Online spaces are part of young people’s reality and everyday life, and technology permeates almost every aspect of their lives including their education, social lives and personal lives. Studies have found little evidence of direct harm caused by screen time, what’s more important is what young people are doing online and how is what they are doing helping them in various aspects of their lives. Time spent online becomes problematic when it starts to have a detrimental impact on other areas of their life. It is important to reflect this when working with parents and carers, so they can negotiate screen time limits based on the individual needs of their child and how they are spending their time online.

For more information about CEOP Talks Relationships, click here.