How can we teach and encourage healthy online relationships?

Ken Corish, online safety manager at the South West Grid for Learning (SWGfL), discusses online relationships education and what resources are available to help implement it

What counts as an ‘online relationship’?

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The internet has evolved since its inception to be an inherently social medium. Platforms like Facebook and Twitter led the way in providing a media experience for people to connect, whether they know each other in real life; to meet new people that share your interests (Sir Ken Robinson’s “Finding your tribe”) or re-connecting with people from your past (remember Friends Reunited?)

But beyond the obvious social media sites, sociality has been a key factor in driving other media too: adult content, dating sites, gaming, content sharing, micro-blogging and collaborative working. Each of these social experiences require a different set of social skills to navigate effectively and context is the key.

As with physical social connections, different social styles are required as the context changes. The conversations we share in the locker room or pub are not the same as the ones around the family Sunday lunch table. Online relationships require that same finesse too.

Those of us who grew up without the internet, while going through the angst of teenage development, explored these relationships through trial and error, success and failure, emotionally wounded at times and at others, ecstatically committed. It’s a key component of child development to be afforded the opportunity to explore these things about ourselves both socially and sexually; to risk those experiences, free from harm.

The conversations we share in the locker room or pub are not the same as the ones around the family Sunday lunch table. Online relationships require that same finesse too.

For a generation whose physical freedom has different limitations to those experienced by the generation before them, it’s not surprising that sociality and sexuality are being explored online too. Even though we understand that it’s an important process in our children’s development, we are quick to label the extremes (sexual exploitation, grooming, sexting, bullying, trolling) and miss the benefits.

Most children will not experience those extremes, though it is obvious we should continue to safeguard against them. It would be wrong to miss the juggernaut of issues that follows behind; the impact on young people’s development, mental and physical wellbeing.

The 2018 Ofcom/ICO report Internet users’ experience of harm online suggests that adults are most concerned about these high impact yet infrequent risks, and less concerned about the risks that most children experience on a daily basis as part of their online social ecosystems. Most legacy online safety educational content reflects this too.

So how do we strike the balance? How do we educate children and young people to flourish in their use of technology, free from harm?

Proportion of internet users expressing a concern
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Why is online relationships education so important?

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There has been a cultural shift evident in online safety education that has resonated through to government that suggests we may be moving in a positive direction.

This sea-change has been influenced by a number of factors, but the central driver is the publication of the UK Government DCMS Online Harms whitepaper. This potential bill aims to regulate online providers to create positive, private and safer online spaces for children and all users of social technology and to be held to account for failure to do so.

But just having a safer space is not enough. Empowering social interaction doesn’t happen on its own. Like any behavioural strategy, it needs to be taught, modelled and practiced. So, alongside these new measures, we have seen the parallel development of a national media literacy strategy, supported by mandatory curriculum subjects of sex and relationships education and PHSE for schools.

Empowering social interaction doesn’t happen on its own. Like any behavioural strategy, it needs to be taught, modelled and practiced.

These new education initiatives require congruence in how they reference online sociality and behaviour if they are going to provide consistent guidance to affect cultural change and the positive outcomes they intend to achieve. The UK Council for Internet Safety in 2017 published the framework “Education for a Connected World”. The framework describes the digital knowledge and skills that children and young people should have the opportunity to develop at different ages and stages of their lives. It highlights what a child should know in terms of current online technology, its influence on behaviour and development, and what skills they need to be able to navigate it.

This framework, agreed across a working group of influential UK organisations working in online safeguarding and education, provides the consistency for an age/developmental related focus to inform the development of other related strategies.

One of its eight strands focuses exclusively on managing online relationships. This strand explores how technology shapes communication styles and identifies strategies for positive relationships in online communities. It offers opportunities to discuss relationships and behaviours that may lead to harm and how positive online interaction can empower and amplify voice. It has scope, progression moving through ecosystems that begin with self and peers to societal and ethical considerations. It should be the “bible” that informs future work in this area.

What tools are available to deliver this kind of education?

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Programmes that focus on the social aspects of online life are continually being developed but some of the strongest are those that are built around social and emotional learning. SEL examples are the ENABLE programme on anti-bullying and the brilliant SELMA programme on online hate, both of which are completely free.

Initiatives that capitalise on peer mentoring and empowering children and young people themselves to shape educative outcomes are also effective. Examples are Childnet’s “Digital Leaders” programme and The Diana Award’s Anti Bullying Ambassadors.

The latest iteration of the PHSE curriculum that includes aspects of online relationships can be found here and developments for the new sex and relationships curriculum can be found here.

South West Grid for Learning (www.swgfl.org.uk) is currently working on an ambitious new free curriculum resource – ProjectEVOLVE – based on the Education for a Connected World Framework. It will fully resource each of the 339 statements in the framework served by an innovative content mechanism, allowing children’s professionals to quickly access relevant information and resources to inform their own strategies. ProjectEVOLVE will be released in September 2019. Visit www.projectevolve.org.uk for more details.