He said, she said: Online relationships education in schools

Online relationships education is vital for young people. So how should it be handled? Kevin O’Malley reports…

Effects of technology on young people


The effects of modern information technology on education are vast. The modern educator is empowered to over a vast range of different capabilities to their students. This variety of options and requirements, however, has similarly increased the sector’s complexity. With all the demands facing modern education, why care about online relationships?

To begin with, scale. Recent studies have universally shown a massive increase in time spent online – Ofcom’s Media Use and Attitudes report for children and parents reported that under-15s can spend up to 20 hours a week on the internet. Between social media (with 96% of 16–24-year-olds making use of it in 2017, a number which has only increased) and other activities such as online gaming, huge degrees of young people’s lives take place on the internet. “For the young people of today, all relationships are online. There’s little distinction between the offline and the online world,” says Steve Forbes, the principal product manager for RM Education.

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That online world, and the communication that occurs in it, can require intense nuance and consideration. “The internet has evolved since its inception to be an inherently social medium,” says Ken Corish, online safety manager at the South West Grid for Learning (SWGfL) and the UK Safer Internet Centre. “Adult content, dating sites, gaming, content-sharing, micro-blogging, collaborative working. Each of these social experiences requires a different set of social skills to navigate effectively and context is the key.”

Forbes agrees: “Whether it’s commenting on someone’s post, or having a romantic relationship online, they’re all examples of online relationships.”

With this in mind, the importance of the subject becomes clear; if online activity is inherently social, then online relationship education (ORE) becomes fundamental to using it safely. Moreover, it’s a key part of digital citizenship – ORE can be seen as integral to maintaining the internet’s future.

How to deliver online relationships education


So what must good ORE include? The first obstacle to answering that question is the sheer variety of situations it has to cover. “Young people are using the internet in a myriad of ways,” says Maithreyi Rajeshkumar, policy and communications manager at Childnet. “For differing people, different topics will be more relevant. We have to explore, educate, and empower them, on all those types of interactions.”

For those victimised by online interaction, the key issue can be an absence of visible support. When discussing the research that Childnet did on peer-on-peer sexual harassment online, Rajeshkumar reported that: “The barriers to reporting were so significant and huge they felt they couldn’t talk to anyone about it. Sometimes we miss that step, saying whatever happens 96% of online there are always places you can go for 16–24-year- support.” This absence can have horrific, olds used social and sometimes lethal, consequences, such as recent reports of teenage suicides.

To make matters worse, some issues can and do dominate the discussion, overshadowing less dramatic but more common occurrences. Forbes says: “Whilst bullying, grooming, insight radicalisation and sexting get the headlines, and are clearly very big risks that have to be dealt with, they are the thin wedge of actual occurrences. What’s more common are things around fake news or fake scares.

Fundamentally, when we’re talking about relationships, we’re talking about what healthy relationships are, and whether it’s online or offline, we’re talking about the same things around respect, consent and engaging people in a safe way.
– Maithreyi Rajeshkumar, Childnet

The structure of online life is riddled with vulnerabilities to these threats. Forbes continues: “There’s two elements; [the thought that] if I read it online then it’s true, because someone’s put it online, and secondly because of the critical mass of young people using these platforms, it quickly spreads, and [it’s often assumed that] if lots of people are saying something it must be true as well. That combination of ‘it’s online’ and ‘lots of people are talking about it’ is a real issue for young people, because it’s then that fake news starts to spread.”

Certain key principles do still seem to hold true, however. Across the board, research has shown that critical thinking skills can provide a key tool in safely navigating the internet. By empowering young people to question information online, educators can ensure their students are better able to spot false information, as well as providing them with the confidence to call it out publicly.

“If more young children called these things out and questioned these things openly, it wouldn’t occur so o en, but because people don’t call it out and are afraid to and don’t have these skills, they escalate,” says Forbes.

Outside of this, it’s important to remember that the social skills required online are o en the same skills required in offline life too. Rajeshkumar says:

“Fundamentally, when we’re talking about relationships, we’re talking about what healthy relationships are, and whether it’s online or offline, we’re talking about the same things around respect, consent and engaging people in a safe way – it’s the same thing, it’s just a different medium.”

Online relationships education resources


Current ORE resources are manifold, with several organisations providing educators with the tools required to help students develop the necessary skills. One such group is Childnet. Recent programmes include the Myths vs Reality PSHE toolkit, designed to give teachers practical resources to discuss the inter-related issues of online pornography, body image and (of course) healthy relationships online. They also provide Stand Up Speak Up, which provides methods to discuss the social, emotional and legal ramifications of sexual harassment, and their Digital Leaders programme, which provides students with systems to help educate their peers themselves. Other organisations providing similar resources include the Child Exploitation and Online Protection (CEOP) website, the UK Safer Internet Centre and SWGfL.

The government itself has also begun to take steps in the area; the recent DCMS Online Harms white paper exists to help provide a safer online space for young people by forcing platforms to regulate themselves. However, this approach has taken a certain amount of criticism. Corish explains: “Just having a safer space is not enough. Empowering social interaction doesn’t happen on its own – it needs to be taught, modelled and practised.”

Empowering social interaction doesn’t happen on its own – it needs to be taught, modelled and practised.
– Ken Corish, SWGfL

As the vast majority of ORE is provided by charities and private companies, schools must find these resources themselves. “If you just Google something, it can be a real challenge to find good advice, versus advice that someone who thought they were an expert came up with, wrote in a paper, put online, and all of a sudden it’s in the top 10 Google search results,” says Forbes. These criticisms are slowly being answered. For instance, the UK Council for Internet Safety has released its Education for a Connected World framework. “It 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,” says Corish.

This development is in turn mirrored in recent changes to the PHSE curriculum to cover online relationships, and the new sex and relationships curriculum (RSE).

This, then, suggests the future of ORE in public education; a curriculum designed first and foremost to empower its students, prioritising critical thinking skills to properly evaluate information, voice their critiques online to better protect their communities from fake news, and visible resources for those students victimised by online behaviour, provided by teachers armed with carefully vetted resources to educate those students. The future, it seems, is bright.

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