RSE in the digital age: Let's get more comfortable being uncomfortable

The 'digital age' has been a buzzword for many years now, if not for decades, and is usually spoken about in other contexts. But how has the creation and growing dependence on the internet impacted young people and, in particular, how they view relationships and sex?

The answer is that digitalization was and is probably one of the most profound turning points for relationships and sex education (RSE) - and failing to keep up with this pace of change means that educators and caregivers could lose a generation.

RSE has had quite a long history in the UK mainstream education system: the Sex Education Forum states that 1999 saw the birth of what was then called SRE.

A lot has changed over the years since, especially regarding what is now considered a healthy relationship. Some of the changes are due to changes in attitudes and a moving away from traditional gender roles. But the change is also due to the proliferation of sexual influence from music videos and lyrics to online pornography – in other words SEX is everywhere!

And all of this change has been expedited by the rise of digital.

With the internet, new areas of concern regarding the safety of young people have arisen, such as cyberbullying, easy availability of pornography, online sexual predators, and sexting.

Young people are exposed to so many things that they may not be mentally equipped to deal with, unable to decipher whether they truly consent and whether it is actually 'healthy'.

Young people using phones

Furthermore, as communication continues to become digitized, young people are spending more time talking to their friends online rather than in person. Worryingly, they are also increasingly communicating with people that are outside of their friendship group.

While much of this communication will be reminiscent of a penpal friendship, a high proportion of people are concealing their true identity. This could range from a young person pretending to be someone that they deem attractive to get more attention online, through to older predators pretending to be something they are not to prey on young people.

If we do not teach young people about the dangers out there and the tactics used, they're likely to fall victim and end up in unhealthy or even dangerous relationships.

Back in 2016, Maria Miller, who chairs the House of Commons’ Women and Equalities Committee said that young people were increasingly using online pornography to learn about sex, as RSE in schools was outdated.

This is shocking as in reality much of the pornography that is easily accessible is extremely violent and misogynistic, failing to prepare young people for real sexual encounters and understanding what is and isn't acceptable.

This is why acet UK believes it’s important that RSE is quick to evolve and adapt to address new trends facing our young people, giving them the tools they need to navigate what is healthy versus unhealthy and also to equip their parents and caregivers to support them as well.

This will mean that sometimes RSE may have to explore and discuss uncomfortable and risky topics, but if we don’t adapt to provide safe spaces for young people to open up about their experiences, we risk them going to unsafe and un-reputable sources for information.

Let's get more comfortable being uncomfortable!