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This months blog is from Michèle Bartlett, who reflects on her work delivering workshops in schools on the impact of pornography.

Michèle Bartlett MA is a UKCP Accredited Child Psychotherapist. She works in private practice and in the education sector and runs workshops and consults on the impact of digital technology on children and young people. Michèle is currently the Chair of the UKCP Faculty for the Psychological Health of Children.


“The internet is a weapon”

 This remark was not made by an uninformed parent, or even a concerned teacher, but by a tech-savvy 15 year old.

I have spent some time recently running groups for young people, as part of a “wellbeing” initiative. We considered a number of topics, including aspects of mental health and the impact of the digital world on their social lives and relationships.

Much is written in the media about the pernicious influence on young people of the internet and social media and this perhaps fuels a level of anxiety regarding the potentially toxic effect of uncontrolled sharing of  personal data and images and the disturbing ease with which even very young children may encounter hard core porn.

Certainly this is not new. The first reference to “sexting” (the sharing of  sexually suggestive or indecent imagery via digital media) was in 2009 and, in 2011, the NSPCC carried out a study to further understand this phenomenon in schools.

Since then, the ever-increasing availability of smartphones for younger and younger children continues to provide unfettered access to the internet with little adult supervision, hence the reported figures of children as young as eight accessing porn.  Last year, the Office of the Children’s Commissioner published a report entitled “Basically Porn is Everywhere”.

So how does this translate into young peoples’ experience? One of the most surprising discoveries for me has been that teenagers, despite growing up with the internet and social media, are in some respects unaware of all the pitfalls.

I have been impressed by how thoughtful and reflective most adolescents are when offered a space to consider and discuss these issues. We looked at a varied range of digital content with small groups discussing and reporting back to their peers. I was encouraged by the very frank interchanges that ensued, even with mixed groups discussing potentially awkward topics such as internet porn. It is, perhaps, surprising given the prevalence of sexualised material both on the web and in the general media, that many young people seemed unaware of both the legal and personal impact of inappropriate sharing. This in spite of widespread publicity regarding celebrity sex tapes and revenge porn  – or perhaps because of it. Has this become so normalised that young people don’t usually think about it? Certainly many studies have highlighted the coercive nature of sexting, with demands to send images, which are then used as leverage for further involvement in sexual activity.

Having many times received referrals for young people who had found themselves in considerable difficulties following the sharing of inappropriate images, I had understood that schools were tackling this issue. It was concerning, therefore, to realise that many of these young people had no idea that sharing an indecent image of anyone under 18 is technically a criminal offence, as it constitutes “disseminating child pornography”.  Whilst many of the adolescents I work with have been (rightly) alarmed that they might unknowingly have been engaging in criminal behaviour, they were clearly equally disturbed at discovering that 12 year olds were being coerced into sex acts by older peers.

We explored the impact that sexualised images and pornographic material might have on emerging relationships, with debates about unrealistic expectations, for both boys and girls on how their bodies “should” look, by comparison with airbrushed and manipulated images. We also considered the distorted view of sexual relationships offered in porn videos, where violence may be normalised. The young people were surprisingly fearless in their willingness to debate such potentially embarrassing material. Whilst indicating that searching for and exploring this material may be something of rite of passage for many people their age, they were alarmed to think that younger siblings might be doing so.

Our discussions regarding the impact on teenage relationships also took in issues surrounding consent and harassment, together with a prevailing culture of “laddish behaviour” in certain contexts, such as university campuses. This generated a lively debate on issues such as “what constitutes harassment?” and  some shock that young men are also victims of unwanted sexual contact, leading to the disturbing recognition that what might be dismissed as “just larking about” between peers is sometimes bordering on sexual assault. A useful question, which generated a striking pause, was “how many of you have younger siblings and how would you feel if someone did this to them in the street?”

The quote at the beginning was in response to the question “what have you learned today that surprised you?”

What this may tell us is that apparently technologically aware adolescents, who are constantly bombarded with online data, are sometimes unable to take in the information that will assist them in navigating the turbulent waters of complex relationships in a digital world. Or perhaps they take in the information, but they need a space and some assistance in order to process and make useful sense of what it means for them. In this respect, I feel that the current belief that these issues can be adequately covered in PHSE is both naïve and over optimistic. Schools may not feel adequately equipped to tackle difficult material and insufficient time is given “off curriculum” to engage in meaningful reflection.

The internet has been compared to the Wild West. If we believe this, then it can be both potentially dangerous and a land of opportunity.  Young people deserve better sex and relationships education to help them negotiate this crucial developmental stage in the digital age.Instead of circling the wagons and attempting to shield them from the world we must instead arm them with the knowledge they need to go out into this new land to form healthy relationships.