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Why is there so much sexual harassment in schools?

In the final episode of this series of the Tech Shock podcast, Vicki Shotbolt and Geraldine Bedell discuss Ofsted’s report into sexual harassment in schools – and ask whether current approaches to tackling it are enough.

“Online, it’s everywhere” 

From name-calling to persistent requests for nude pictures, the report found harassment to be “ubiquitous” in schools; so much a part of young people’s experience that it had become commonplace. 

But while the findings make for shocking reading, perhaps the most shocking thing about this report is that these issues are nothing new. 

A Girlguiding report found 75% of girls felt sexual harassment affects their lives. The Everyday Sexism project, which invites users to document their experiences of harassment, was founded almost a decade ago. 

While efforts have been made – such as the new RSE curriculum, as discussed in Episode 26 with guest Jonathan Baggaley of the PSHE Association – obvious steps have been missed. 

The most obvious of all? Tackling the role of pornography.

Porn was not included in the Online Safety Bill, and in 2019 the Government backtracked on its promise to introduce age verification on porn sites. 

Yet porn is “skewing young people’s understanding of what is normal” when it comes to sex and intimate relationships, and is being accessed by children at a very young age.

The Ofsted report found a quarter of children were under 12 when they first viewed hardcore porn, and 60% were under 14.

There are barriers in the offline world, but not the online world.“We wouldn’t allow a child into a sex shop. And yet online, it’s everywhere”. 

READ: Parent Zone founder and CEO Vicki Sholtbolt offers parents advice on responding to school sexual harassment reports

Wider cultural context 

Vicki and Geraldine agree that tools and barriers alone won’t fix this issue, particularly when it comes to content that is defined as “legal but harmful”. 

Tools “will never be sophisticated enough to make [that] distinction”, says Geraldine, pointing to the example of the amount of discernment, analysis and context someone requires when moderating online forums. 

Some argue that if you stop children from accessing porn they’ll find a way around – but having those boundaries and filters in place is still important. 

On top of those boundaries, Geraldine believes that, “sending out a cultural message about what's acceptable, what's legal and not legal, would make a big difference”. 

There is a wider cultural context of sexism and harassment in our schools which needs to change. Boys are explaining their actions as “banter” while girls are told that police will be involved if they complain. 

This victim-blaming is “unlikely to encourage [girls] to step forward and report. The support structure around young people is wrong.” 

Amplified by the internet

While sexual harassment is not new, it is being “amplified” to new heights by the internet, leaving schools, safeguarding leads – and parents – struggling to keep up. “Technology is changing the way we interact with each other at such a pace that... we are unable to prepare young people for the consequences.”

Tackling these issues piecemeal is not working. Sexual harassment is about what happens offline as well as online. We need to tackle the wider culture of online life, and how it is impacting societal norms and expectations – especially for young people. 

Listen to episode 33 of Tech Shock: "Why is there so much sexual harrassment in schools?"

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