‘Let’s talk about sexting, consent and online relationships’

When we teach about consent in relationships, the discussion must relate to pupils' online lives, says Jess McBeath

Jess McBeath

‘Let’s talk about sex(ting), consent and online relationships’

The statistics paint a picture: one in 10 young people has been pressured by their boy/girlfriend to share a nude image; and a quarter have witnessed someone secretly taking a sexual image of someone and sharing it online. “Consent” is conspicuous by its absence, which is why it’s such a hot topic in relationships and sex education. Young people are being shamed into school and community exclusion, and we want to change that. But when we talk about consent and online relationships, there’s a missing piece of the jigsaw.

Here’s a question: what is the first thing you would do if a stranger fell ill in the street? 

  1. Stop to help.
  2. Take a photo.
  3. Take a video.
  4. Livestream it.

Unfortunately, these days the answer seems to be anything but the first one. Maybe technology is like wearing sunglasses that filter out the true impact of our behaviour. Maybe it emboldens us to act in ways we’d be ashamed of in any other context. We seem to have developed different norms of behaviour online. Is it a problem that we bark commands at our smart speakers, expecting immediate acquiescence to our desires? As we communicate with – rather than through – technology, does it matter if we’re rude or respectful, patient or impatient? These are all issues that are increasingly spilling into schools, which teachers are having to grapple with.

Quick read: Schools to teach about consent

Sexting: Call for more guidance

‘I wouldn’t tell my teacher’: Concerns about e-safety education

Here’s the rub: the importance we place on consent within online relationships is a reflection of how we value consent in every part of our online lives. But consent is routinely abused online. It is devalued, invisible or perfunctory at best. It is reduced to a box-ticking agreement to terms and conditions which haven’t been read because they’re (deliberately?) too long and verbose. Technology involves psychological levers to gain compliance and extend screen time – think of the social media “likes” which define popularity, the notifications to regularly bring you back to an app or the virtual rewards that signal accomplishment in an online game. Onward, ever onward. A company showed off a new chatbot that fooled the caller into believing they were talking with a real human. Fake videos have been created to serve a political agenda. Technology with manipulation at its heart.

Online safety: sexting and consent

These principles have spead into our own online behaviour. We can use apps to covertly track, video, photograph or listen to employees, children or spouses. "Sharenting" (over sharing by parents of their children’s images or data) is evolving. It is no longer just a case of risking future identity theft. Children are a commodity online – there is an income to be made though a family YouTube channel. Is it only celebrities who Photoshop their children to perfection? We cannot expect young people to value consent in online relationships if we regularly delegitimise it elsewhere.   

But there is good news: consent is an increasing part of our vocabulary when we talk of digital matters. There is greater public awareness of online data and privacy. Government is talking tough about the need for regulation. There are excellent educational resources available regarding consent in the digital world. Change is afoot, which will no doubt come as some relief to teachers – who are busy enough with other stuff already, of course – as they try to get to grips with the fast-changing digital world that now pervades school life.

So, when we talk with young people in our schools about consent in relationships, let’s root that conversation in the language of our online lives. Let’s talk about data rights, manipulative technology and authenticity online. Let’s talk about power, image, shame and empathy, and how we can use technology as a force for good. That’s the missing piece of the puzzle.

Jess McBeath is a Scotland-based consultant in online safety

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Jess McBeath

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