Nearly fifth of teenagers say internet main information source on sexual health

11 April 2024, 00:04

A teenager using a tablet
Cropped image of teenager sitting in bed under warm blanket and watching new show episode on tablet computer. Picture: PA

Youngsters are turning to online sources to learn about sex which is leaving them vulnerable to potentially ‘dangerous’ information, a charity warned.

Nearly a fifth of teenagers say the internet is their main source for information about sexual health and healthy relationships, a survey suggests.

Young people are turning to online sources to learn about relationships and sex which is leaving them vulnerable to potentially “dangerous” and “untrustworthy” information, the Sex Education Forum charity has warned.

A poll, of 1,001 students aged 16 and 17 in England, suggests that 30% of young people turned to social media as their main source of information about sexual orientation and gender identity, ahead of school (25%).

The survey, carried out by Censuswide on behalf of the charity in February, found that 22% of young people said the internet was their main source of information on pornography, while 15% said they turned to pornography itself as their main source of information on the topic.

Around a fifth said social media and websites were their main source of information about unhealthy relationships (21%), healthy relationships (18%) and sexual health (18%).

The findings, which have been shared with the PA news agency, come after the Government announced a review of its statutory relationships, sex and health education (RSHE) guidance for schools more than a year ago.

Delegates at the annual conference of the National Education Union last week warned that social media influencers, such as Andrew Tate, are contributing to a rise in sexism and misogyny which young girls are facing in schools.

The Sex Education Forum poll suggests nearly half of students learned nothing at all or not enough at school on power imbalances in relationships (49%), porn (49%) and how to access local sexual health services (46%).

More than two in five reported learning nothing at all or not enough at school on attitudes and behaviour of boys and men towards girls and women (44%) and on gender identity (44%).

The charity’s report on relationships and sex education (RSE) said: “It is clear that schools feel under-confident about delivering on some areas of the curriculum that are statutory, but are particularly taboo and politicised.

“The problem is that these gaps leave young people vulnerable to misinformation as they seek out knowledge from online sources like social media, or have no access to advice at all.”

Last month, the Women and Equalities Committee said there was compelling evidence that RSE is “failing young people” as it warned of soaring rates of sexually transmitted diseases,

More than four in five (81%) of the teenagers who were surveyed said they agreed that primary school children should be taught about the importance of consent for things like touching another person’s body, while 73% said they believed they should be warned about the harms of pornography.

More than half (56%) said children should see examples of same-sex relationships – included in stories, scenarios and discussion – in primary schools, while 53% said children should learn what trans and non-binary mean.

Teenage girls were more likely to say children should be taught about the importance of consent in primary school than their male peers (85% compared with 77%), the survey suggests.

Since September 2020, relationships and sex education has been compulsory in secondary schools in England, while relationships education has been compulsory in primary schools.

In March last year, Rishi Sunak announced a review of RSHE guidance for schools following concerns that children were being exposed to “inappropriate” content.

But the Department for Education (DfE) has yet to publish a consultation on the guidance.

When asked to select from a list of possible actions the Government could take to help improve RSE, more than half called for training for teachers to develop more confidence with the subject (57%), and flexibility for schools to cover RSE topics at the age that their pupils need (52%).

Lucy Emmerson, chief executive of the Sex Education Forum, said: “More than a year after announcing a review of the subject, we are still waiting for Government to release its promised consultation and refreshed guidance for relationships and sex education (RSE).

“While we hope these launch following the Easter recess, Westminster has been delaying this critical review despite the increasingly complex relationships landscape for young people and the well-documented harms impacting them, from sexual abuse and violence to poor sexual health.

“I am alarmed to find that students feel today’s biggest issues, including pornography and attitudes of men and boys towards women and girls, are not being adequately covered.

“Hearing that young people seek questionable or even dangerous information on outlets like social media to fill gaps on key topics should be a wake-up call that better provision is needed from schools for the safety of our pupils.

“Government must heed the voices of young people and release improved guidance that deals with their realities – and soon.”

The charity is calling on the Government to prioritise flexible “age and stage” relevant content and providing more teacher training.

Ms Emmerson added: “Neglecting young people’s views does the next generation a disservice by leaving them dependent on potentially untrustworthy online sources for information and ill-equipped for healthy relationships.”

Margaret Mulholland, inclusion specialist at the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “It is extremely worrying that children are turning to the internet for information about sexual education and relationships as this information may be unreliable and harmful.

“We are very concerned, in particular, about the rise of online misogyny and the impact this is having on the behaviour of some young people.

“Schools play a crucial role in providing reliable and responsible information on these issues through their relationships, sex and health education programmes.

“However, they have been poorly supported by the Government in terms of resources and training and are expected to deliver this sensitive and complex topic within packed timetables and severe funding pressures.”

A Government spokesperson said: “As part of the current review of the RSHE curriculum, we are looking at where certain topics can be strengthened, in an age-appropriate and factual way.

“We want to ensure all children are safe online and so, through our world-leading Online Safety Act, social media firms are being required to protect children from being exposed to harmful material online, and the Education Secretary recently took robust action by prohibiting the use of mobile phones in schools.”

By Press Association

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