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'Tech is affecting young people's views about sex and their mental health – we can't ignore this any longer'

On International Women’s Day, the founder of the Everyday Sexism project argues that teachers, schools and parents must confront the challenges presented by modern technology head-on

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On International Women’s Day, the founder of the Everyday Sexism project argues that teachers, schools and parents must confront the challenges presented by modern technology head-on

Laura Bates was writing ahead of today’s Technology and Teenage Mental Health Conference, a one-day event organised by Cranleigh School in Surrey

A government-funded study last year revealed that one in four girls and 9 per cent of boys are clinically depressed by the time they turn 14. Ofcom reports that 83 per cent of 12- to 15-year-olds have their own smartphone and that 99 per cent of the same age group surf the net every week, spending an eye-watering average of 21 hours online. Their time is not only spent on social media: 60 per cent of young people have seen online pornography by the age of 14 and a quarter first view it at age 12 or younger.

Research into the relationship between technology and mental health, particularly among young people, is sorely lacking, though urgently needed, so the topic must be approached with care. My own work with the Everyday Sexism Project and the recent viral success of movements like #MeToo have demonstrated the positive potential for technology to catalyse social change. Many young people find support, strengthen friendships and explore self-expression through social media. But for others, online platforms may be synonymous with body image dissatisfaction, pressure to send explicit photographs of themselves or the experience of vicious online abuse. The picture is complicated, to say the least.

The latest Girls Attitudes survey by charity Girlguiding reveals that over half of girls aged 11-21 have come across unwanted violent or graphic images online that made them feel upset or disturbed. And according to the NSPCC, more than four in 10 girls (44 per cent) and just under a third of boys (32 per cent) have sent sexual images or messages to their boyfriend or girlfriend (over a quarter of girls said they were pressured by their partner to do so).

Meanwhile, as the #MeToo movement propels women's and girls’ experiences of sexual violence firmly into the spotlight, our society must grapple with the realisation that sexual harassment and abuse are endemic in schools, as well as in workplaces. A YouGov poll found that almost a third of 16- to 18-year-old girls experience "unwanted sexual touching" (a form of sexual assault under UK law) whilst at school. And almost three-quarters of all pupils of the same age group said they hear terms such as “slut” or “slag” used towards girls at school on a weekly basis.

The impact of online pornography

My work with young people in schools across the country suggests that these are not separate issues. The proliferation of (often misogynistic) online pornography and the fertile ground that social media opens up for online abuse and the hypersexualisation of women all contribute to a wider sexist atmosphere in which harassment and violence risk becoming normalised. There are, of course, other societal factors to take into account as well, and no single category of influencers, whether it be teachers, parents or anyone else, can be expected to take sole responsibility for solving the problem.

If we are to make progress, bold educators, schools and parents must confront the challenges presented by modern technology head-on, by holding open and positive discussions with young people; enabling them to voice their fears, opinions and experiences instead of shrouding the subject in silence and stigma. Proper training, support and funding must be made available to help schools to do so. For too long, we have attempted to bury our heads in the sand, with some naively arguing that discussions about sex, consent and online pornography risk "giving young people ideas". But the reality is that they are already exposed to such ideas, perhaps to a greater extent than many parents and teachers even realise. Either we give them the tools to navigate modern technology, to use it safely and responsibly and to understand the risks and stereotypes it may present. Or we keep quiet, and allow what happens online to have an enormous, unchecked and potentially damaging influence on young people’s self-esteem and their ideas about what sex and relationships look like.

In my opinion, it is no surprise that a crisis in mental health amongst young people has coincided with a deafening silence in many classrooms on the topic of technology and relationships. A recent poll revealed that three-quarters of young people were never taught about sexual consent at school, and government guidance on sex and relationship education (SRE) was last updated almost two decades ago, rendering it useless in the face of sexting, social media abuse or online pornography.

With new guidance forthcoming, and a long overdue commitment to make sex and relationships education compulsory in all schools, change may finally be afoot. We must acknowledge that we are facing a crisis in young people’s mental health and high levels of sexual violence in schools, and that technology has the potential to interact with and exacerbate these problems in nuanced ways. Young people need all the support and guidance they can get to navigate this terrain. We are currently living through a unique moment in history, never experienced before or again, in which a generation of non-digital natives is parenting and educating a generation of digital natives. The gulf in experience and understanding that this presents should not be underestimated. Sharing knowledge and strategies to approach these linked and complex issues has never been more important.

Laura Bates is the founder of the Everyday Sexism Project

Technology & Teenage Mental Health is a one-day conference organised by Cranleigh School in Surrey, with the aim of helping teenagers to navigate the online world and live with less pressure by bringing together educators to discuss research and trends and agree best practice in the field. The school will hold a similar conference for parents in May

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