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“Parents are the missing link in children’s sex education”

In this week’s episode of Tech Shock, Leah Jewett from Outspoken Sex Education discusses the role parents — and pornography — play in how children and young people learn about sex and relationships.

Let’s talk about sex

Let’s be honest: many of us can remember those awkward first conversations with adults about sex when we were children. Leah herself says that, “despite longing to talk openly with my son and daughter and sex and relationships, I found it really challenging.” Parents can feel “awkwardness, embarrassment and fear”, and many express concern about “destroying their child’s innocence” — but Leah says that staying silent can actually make things worse.

“Sheltering and shielding children just keeps them in the dark, maintains their ignorance, leaves them vulnerable, more liable to seek out info from unreliable sources, offline and online.”

Turning the tables

It’s these online sources that pose the biggest challenge. Leah says the internet has had a “massive” impact on sex education — particularly for parents who did not grow up with it themselves. 

“The internet has turned the tables,” says Leah. “Parents feel they have to be the experts on everything, but kids these days are digital natives — so there’s often a discrepancy between what parents think their kids are experiencing, and what they’re actually going through online.”

There are some positives: young people can access information anonymously, and LGBT+ young people can find often-missing representation and connection. But there are “clearly a lot of negatives” — especially where online pornography is concerned. 

Porn – sex-ed by default

According to Leah, 66% of 14-to-15 year-olds have viewed pornography online, and the first time was usually accidental. Worryingly, its pervasiveness and accessibility means it is becoming “sex-ed by default”.

Leah says this is impacting young people in a huge range of ways, from their behaviour towards each other to their mental health and body image. “Children and young people [are] seeing graphic images that are hard for them to unsee and they’re not yet ready to process, before they’ve even held hands with someone. We have yet to see what impact that’s going to make.”

Some already believe there to be a link between the explosion in online porn and the pervasiveness of so-called ‘rape culture’. Leah warns that it certainly seems to be “relevant”, with porn perpetuating “harmful gender stereotypes, unrealistic expectations of bodies and sex, victim blaming, sexual violence, degradation and objectification of women.”

Talk little and often

When it comes to curbing sexual harassment, Leah says, “the answer is one word: education. We have to teach equality, respect and consent from a young age – but we have to be talking about it at all ages.”

Those conversations need to be happening at home, as well as at school. Parents play a vital role in reinforcing what children learn about sex and relationships in the classroom — or on the internet. Leah recommends a “little and often” approach: talk openly, regularly, and avoid the top-down, heavy-handed lecture. Weave conversations about healthy relationships into everyday life, using news stories, films or even billboards as starting points. “Just make a comment, ask your kids what they’d do in that situation – and, importantly, listen to them.”

Listen to episode 29 of Tech Shock: “How to talk to your children about sex”

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