We spoke to Professor Emma Bond and Professor Andy Phippen of the NSPCC, discussing how can we provide children and young people with the relationships education they need to enjoy healthy and fulfilling relationships.
Professor Emma Bond is the Chair of the National Research Ethics Committee for the NSPCC, and an expert member of the Scientific Advisory Board for Health Literacy in Childhood and Adolescence. Professor Andy Phippen is a professor of digital rights at Bournemouth University with an extensive research background in the relationship between children and technology. We interviewed them both to discuss the importance of effective relationship education and how best this can be delivered.
Young Minds asked young people what they want from relationships and sex education (RSE). They answered: ‘mandatory sex education in all schools, designed for the real world, including information about consent and what a healthy relationship looks like, and a chance to talk about what’s on their minds’ . Young people need effective sex education so that they have the best chance of enjoying healthy relationships as they grow up.
Relationships shape our everyday interactions and children need to be equipped with the skills to develop and manage them. It is no surprise that extensive research, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health, found that ‘quality sex education has broad, long term benefits for young people’s physical and mental health’ .
So, how can we provide children and young people with the relationships education they need?
Children’s Lives are Increasingly Mediated Through Technology
Before the pandemic children were spending an average of 23 hours a week on their mobiles, tablets, and games consoles at home . However, with the time spent on devices online only increasing with remote learning, children’s lives are increasingly mediated through the internet and technology.
Emma highlights exactly why relationship and sex education must adapt to this new level of online dependency:
“Even when I was at primary school, the school dictionary fell open at the word sex because everybody had gone there and looked it up because they were curious. Well, we encourage children to go to Google, to look up Shakespeare and their geography homework. Why shouldn’t they be Googling ‘sex’ and ‘relationships’? But what they might find on the internet is perhaps not the Dorian Kingsley version of ‘sex’ that we would like them to find.”Professor Emma Bond, Chair of the National Research Ethics Committee for, NSPCC, and expert member, Scientific Advisory Board for Health Literacy in Childhood and Adolescence. 2020.
The Effectiveness of Filtering
Current discourse focuses on the need to filter children’s access to inappropriate content online, placing content as the issue and prevention of access as the solution. Understandably, parents, teachers, and carers want to mitigate children’s experiences online, but is filtering a successful tool?
While filtering works through identifying and blocking keywords it continues to block content that is related to sexuality and gender. Google is children’s primary research tool, and if we are blocking information around sexuality and gender how can they begin to learn and discover about themselves?
Andy agrees, stating, “one of the main reasons why, even after a massive government media drive, that home filtering wasn’t taken up as much as the government would have hoped, is that it just doesn’t really do the job very well, it over blocks” .
Furthermore, research from The Journal of Pediatrics found that ‘internet filters were not effective at shielding early adolescents from aversive online experiences’ . This is not surprising as children do not exist in a vacuum.
Emma expands on this, commenting: “I think what’s interesting about filtering and monitoring is that it assumes children are static, it completely overlooks the fact that children are mobile, social beings, who go to other places where filtering may not be in place.” Emma continues, “we must recognise that children talk; they gossip, share and show what they have discovered” .
Andy discussed a piece of work he did with the South West Grid for learning trust (SWGfl), in which they asked over 10,000 young people “what have you seen online that’s upsetting?” He explained “There was a vast range of responses, from news articles to videos of animals being hurt, people being mean about their football team. If we’re to filter all of that, it’s going to be a very boring internet for children” .
The research revealed the content that caused upset to children was far broader than the sexual and pornographic content that filtering systems target . In fact, ‘the range of content that has a likelihood to cause upset while online is so broad, it would be impossible to define a filtering strategy that could catch it all’ .
An Alternative to Filtering
So, what is the alternative to filtering? With focus only given to the biological and legal aspects of sex and relationships, the current curriculum inadequately equips children with the tools they need to navigate the online world.
The British Educational Communications and Technology Agency previously reported how it was the online behavioural activity, rather than the technology itself, that posed an e-safety risk. They argued there must be a shift in approach: ‘rather than restricting access to technology, we need to empower learners to develop safe and responsible online behaviours to protect themselves whenever and wherever they go online.’ .
Andy uses cyber flashing as an example. Something we know young people do.
“They think that’s how you end up having a relationship with somebody. A quote I frequently use, is from a conversation I had with a 14-year-old, whereas to say, why do boys send ‘dick pics’ then? And he went well to get nudes back. I asked, well, does that ever work? He went, no, never. Why do you do it then? And he just went cause one day I might.”Andy Phippen, Professor of Digital Rights, Bournemouth University. 2020.
Andy uses this example to argue the weak level of relationships education we are providing children. He continues to argue that relationship education must include the fundamentals of a relationship; “the fact that there are sexual elements shouldn’t preclude from delivering effective education around it!”
Delivering an Effective Relationship Education
When asked, “how do we deliver effective relationship education?” Emma tells me it all about engagement; having conversations with young people in a way they feel that they could go to adults and get advice.
Emma continues: “If children do enter something online that is upsetting to them, what you actually want is for them to feel confident that they can talk to a parent, teacher or an adult – that they know they will be believed, listened to, and helped to make sense of what it is that has happened”.
Children will benefit from an open dialogue about what a respectful relationship is, what we mean by consent, and how to recognise if somebody is threatening them or trying to coerce them.
Currently, there is little consideration around critical thinking in PSHE or RSC education. The curriculum model simply provides children with biological and legislative facts. Critical thinking provides children with the means to understand the context of a piece of information or action and to reflect on whether this is acceptable, accurate or truthful. The curriculum should develop to support this.
The Future of Sex Education has produced a multi-party publication  that outlines the standard national sex education we should be delivering. It maintains that:
‘Quality sex education goes beyond delivering information. It provides young people with opportunities to explore their own identities and values along with the values and beliefs of their families and communities. It also allows young people to practice the communication, negotiation, decision-making, and assertiveness skills they need to create healthy relationships— both sexual and nonsexual—throughout their lives.’National sex education standards core content and skills, k-12 second edition.
Both Andy and Emma agreed with this, adding “we must stop being scared of sex and relationship education and begin to deliver it progressively, in a manner that young people are asking for.” This includes recognising that this is a specialist subject with legal, social and behavioural complexities on top of the educational need and should be delivered by a specialist.
Encouraging Parents to Have a Conversation
Parents often rely on tools, such as filtering, as they feel awkward or unequipped to have conversations with children about relationships.
Andy describes how “we’re justifying our use of filtering and monitoring by telling ourselves that we need to do this to keep our children safe. But in reality, it’s that we’re not willing to face the fact that they are growing up and are beginning to engage in risk-taking behaviours, and that we need to be there to support them when they do.”
Equally, Emma discusses how parents are so often worried that if they talk to their children about pornography, they will go and look it up. She continues:
“you to teach your child how to cross the road safely. They are going to have to encounter that risk at some point in their lives and you do things that are age-appropriate in a way that keeps the child safe; releasing them little by little and giving them the thinking skills to be able to navigate that environment safely, competently and confidently.”Professor Emma Bond, Chair of the National Research Ethics Committee for, NSPCC, and expert member, Scientific Advisory Board for Health Literacy in Childhood and Adolescence. 2020.
Parents, as well as schools, will benefit from a wider selection of age-appropriate resources to help them have these conversations.
The Importance of Developing Good Learning Resources
Emma and Andy’s final call to action focuses on the importance of developing good learning resources surrounding sex and relationships. Emma refers to the NSPCC Talk PANTS resource, “that’s a safe, sensible message, no matter what your age, to think very carefully before you take your pants off”.
They both stressed the need to invest in resources, with similarly positive messages, that can be used by schools and shared with parents to help facilitate meaningful conversations.
“too often we’ve developed educational resources without involving young people. Speaking to young people is a great way to learn about the sorts of things young people need help navigating. It’s something that we’ve been doing for a very long time!”Professor Emma Bond, Chair of the National Research Ethics Committee for, NSPCC, and expert member, Scientific Advisory Board for Health Literacy in Childhood and Adolescence. 2020.
Andy and Emma recommended resources available on the Southwest Grid for learning trust for use in schools or to share with parents.
 YoungMinds.org. YoungMinds Vs [online] [Accessed 16/04/21]
 Goldfarb, E., Lieberman, L. 2020. Journal of Adolescent Health. Three Decades of Research: The Case for Comprehensive Sex Education. [online] [Accessed 16/04/21]
 Telegraph.co.uk. 2019. Children spend twice as long on smartphones as talking to their parents. [online] [Accessed 16/04/21]
 Phippen, A. 2013. Culture, Media and Sport Committee.
 Przybylski, A., Nash, V. 2017. Internet Filtering Technology and Aversive Online Experiences in Adolescents. [online] [Accessed 16/04/21]
 Phippen, A. Young People, Internet Use and Wellbeing; A Report Series What Causes Upset Online. [online] [Accessed 16/04/21]
 Becta. 2009. AUPs in context: Establishing safe and responsible online behaviours. [online] [Accessed 16/04/21]
 Advocatesforyouth.org. 2020. National sex education standards core content and skills, k-12 second edition. [online] [Accessed 16/04/21]
Register now to continue accessing this page
Subscribe today and use MGC to discover how your peers, across the country, are implementing policies and driving change so you can learn from their experiences, apply best practice, and develop your expertise.
- Access to a dedicated public sector resource that you read, see and hear.
- More than 50 new articles per month
- Insights into how to deliver better public services
- The latest best practice in your sector
- Evidence base case study focused videos, original articles, interviews and more
- Save time by personalising your MGC to only see the relevant content you need
- Automatically earn and track your CPD points
- Discounts to Government Events and GovPD training courses
- Monthly update newsletter