Family Lives supports the Home Office's This is Abuse campaign

With the Home Office's 'This Is Abuse' campaign - designed to encourage positive relationships - well under way, Family Lives continues to work with families and young people to explore and address the impact that new digital and communication technologies can have on children and young people's behaviour.  Peer-on-peer sexual exploitation and abuse is a worrying issue that urgently needs to be addressed.  

Family Lives recommends up-skilling parents so they have the ability to address their child's real or cyber relationships.  Early age-appropriate education and information will reduce the likelihood of young people suffering negative social, emotional, educational outcomes. Without clear and frank information children and young people will continue to rely on - or be conditioned by - inaccurate information or portrayals including, those from pornography and the media.  This could negatively shape how they approach and behave in relationships in the future.

Family Lives believes that: 

Current sex and relationships education is not adequate to address these complex issues and schools and parents often feel out of their depth as they tackle these difficult situations. 

Commercialisation and sexualisation debates in the UK are framed primarily around girls and neglect to consider how boys have been affected by these pressures and by proxy how to engage young males in positive preventative strategies.   

Extreme male gender identity – such as hypermasculinity- promotes an adversarial relationship with females who are viewed as deficient, ‘other’ or dangerous.  Early intervention is therefore essential. 

The graphic content in music videos, ‘porno chic’ in advertising; sexualised representations of women and men in the media; the marketing of clothing and accessories that sell or represent sexualised identities all demonstrate that mainstream media makes sex  - and fictionalised and idealised representations of relationships are much more visible and its viability and imagery now wallpapers children’s lives.   

In particular, Family Lives believes that unless young people are educated about the unrealistic nature of abuse via digital mediums, hyper-masculinity and pornographic sex via Sex and Relationship Education (SRE) sessions there is a danger that young people will develop unhealthy and unrealistic expectations about relationships.     

Family Lives is concerned that children have greater access to sexting and are at risk of digital abuse via online technology via multiple platforms.  This is evidenced in a 2011 Family Lives & Drinkaware survey of over 1000 parents of 8-17 year olds which found that 7% of respondents reported having experienced an issue with online pornography with their child, with 14% reporting that they had heard about this issue occurring with their child’s friends or at their child’s school.  Most parents thought that they were the best person to talk to their children about pornography, although men were less likely to think so (64%) than women (76%). 

Despite this, only 34% of parents had spoken to their child or planned to about sex and positive relationships.  In addition, where parents were prepared to speak to their children, many were leaving it until at late stage, with the average age that the conversation took place, or was expected to take place was 12.8 years of age.  Only 40% of parents felt that support and advice was available to help them talk to their child/ren about online pornography.  19% found little or no support or advice on the issue.  

Family Lives’ Teen Boundaries team is committed to supporting families dealing with issues such as sexting, sexual violence and avoiding physical and mental abuse in teenage relationships.  Without clear and realistic facts about sex and relationships, young people will seek out the information from elsewhere.  Seeking to maintain sexual ignorance is not the answer as young people may find information that is inaccurate or based on fantasy that distorts their ideas of sexual relationships.  The UK has one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy in Europe.  Other European countries ensure that their young people have realistic information about sex and relationships; information which clearly helps young people to choose to have sex when they are ready which is on average at an older age than their UK counterparts."

Teenagers commenting in TeenBoundaries workshops illustrate their awareness of this trend:

“(the media) can influence (men) to make bad choices, and to see women as objects. It’s just a bad thing...like you have to be dominant...if you’re not dominant you’re not popular. Women, they’re more concerned with their own image, rather than men’s because they have to impress the male first.”   (boy, age 14) 

One Family Lives’ service user describes her experience of trusting her daughter and finding out too late that the trust had been misplaced:

“I just found out on Wednesday that my 11 year old daughter has been chatting to an older boy (says he is 14) on MSN and from what I can tell she has showed him parts of her body on a web cam and possibly sent him photos of herself. I was extremely shocked to find this out as she has shown no interest in boys/sex/kissing etc. but reading through the message history that I have found she has been discussing sex with him. She has also accessed porn sites. 

As soon as I discovered this I have talked to her - she says she does not know why she has done this, that she isn't really interested in boys/sex etc. I have explained to her all the dangers of what she has done, and also now installed a software package which restricts the length of time she can use the Internet and blocks her accessing inappropriate sites and also tells me what sites she has tried to access I can now also approve her MSN friends and view conversation logs.”  

Family Lives has a series of recommendations which include:

Urgent research is required to quantify the full extent of sexual violence between young people. Both quantitative and qualitative research is needed to explore the causal drivers underlying this behaviour.  The government should prioritise funding to ensure that there is enough data on this problem to understand the scale of the problem and generate evidence-based measures to tackle it.     

Schools should play a leading role in teaching children and young people about consent and unacceptable sexual behaviour, and should work with parents to ensure that these messages are delivered and reinforced in the home environment. Educational prevention initiatives must focus on teaching boys about consent and boundaries as well as girls.   

Families should be supported in reducing pressures for children to conform to strict gender stereotypes.  Retail codes of practice should contain guidance on good practice with regards to gender alongside sexualisation.     

Schools should take a leading role in teaching children and young people to see through gender stereotypes and sexualised media from an early stage.  Both primary and secondary schools should be receive funding to invest in high quality Personal, Social And Health Education (PSHE)  lessons that explore gender stereotypes and help children to decode the messages that the media and marketing practices are sending about gender roles, empowering them to challenge what they see.   

The evidence shows that without access to information about sex and relationships, young people will rely on or be conditioned by inaccurate information or portrayals, including those from pornography.  All schools, including primary schools should provide age appropriate Sex and Relationship Education (SRE).    

Families have a key role to play in reinforcing ideas about healthy relationships and sex.  National awareness campaigns should be developed to up-skill parents to talk openly and confidently about sex and relationships to both boys and girls.   

Many parents feel ill equipped to keep their children safe online and many others underestimate the risk to their child or the age at which their child may be engaging in risky or sexualised behaviour online.  Support and awareness raising campaigns targeted at parents may help to encourage them to talk to their children about staying safe in the digital world at an earlier stage, reducing their child’s vulnerability to sexual exploitation.  

All schools should be provided with guidance based on up-to-date research on pupils’ evolving practices with regards to new digital and communication technologies.  All schools should develop and update school policies which tackle new forms of bullying including sexual bullying and peer-on-peer sexual exploitation. 

In order to meet the Home Office’s “Preventing Violence Against Women and Girls’ Strategy”, Family Lives argues a consistent, universal approach is needed in schools to ensure that children and young people have the opportunity to realise their fullest social and intellectual potential and live lives that are free form coercion, exploitation and abuse.  It is critical therefore that the Department for Education are brought into these plans, as tackling child exploitation, violence against women and girls and empowering young people to resist sexualised and commercial pressures depends upon engaging schools and families.  Family Lives recommends that the Department for Education should work towards producing guidance that supports a whole school approach to tackle sexist, sexual and gender-based bullying.     

Parents, adult carers and family members concerned about issues contained within the report can call the free Family Lives Helpline: 0808 800 2222 or visit http://familylives.org.uk/forums/got-teenager/sex-and-relationships