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Digital Romance

A report published today by Brook and NCA's CEOP command reveals how digital technology fundamentally shapes the ways in which young people relate to one another in the arena of romance, sex and relationships. The research highlighted both the positives and the negatives of using technology which furthers our understanding of the challenges young people face as well as provides insights to improve education for young people.

The research combined interviews, focus groups and a survey of over 2,000 young people aged between 14 and 25 (72% were 14-17 years old). Participants described many benefits to using technology in their love lives, including the opportunities it gave them to meet potential partners, to flirt, to enjoy intimacy, and to get to know someone away from the crowd. 38% of survey participants reported meeting someone first online who they then started seeing, and this was more frequently reported by LGBT young people.

Young people described fluidly moving between forms of digital and in person communication depending on what they wanted to express and convey. Some said that technology helped them stay in control and gave them space to be themselves. A key finding was that digital had not replaced in person communication, which was more frequent and overall preferred.

Digital Romance Author, Dr Ester McGeeney, said:

“The research shows how central technology is to young people’s relationships today. It’s part of how young people communicate, build intimacy, hang out, argue, make up, break up and deal with the post break up fall out. For most young people though, technology hasn’t replaced face to face communication. Rather, it has diversified the ways that young people have relationships and communicate with others. For educators this means that we need to bring together education around positive relationships and online safety to support young people to apply the same critical skills, knowledge and values in their relationships with others whether they are online or offline."

Findings also revealed that technology added to the ‘drama’ of young people’s relationships – for example, it was conducive to commenting (at times critically) on others’ appearance, interfering in others’ relationships and break-ups, as well as cheating and jealousy.

Of concern, issues of sexism and harmful gender norms were evident in the responses with clear differences between the experiences of young men and women. For example, girls were significantly more likely (36%) to have come under pressure to send nude photos of themselves than boys (11%) and to have experienced threats or verbal abuse from partners during a relationship (14% compared to 8% from boys). They also reported having their appearance rated online, both positively and negatively, in much higher numbers than boys.

LGBT young people generally described more benefits to digital technology, but also experienced more online risks. Significantly more gay young people (9.9%) had met up with an online contact who was not who they said they were, compared to straight young people (4.9%).

The post break-up period was found to be a high risk time. 5% of young people reported that their ex sent a nude or sexual image of themselves onto other people, and 28% that their ex or their ex’s friends had sent them nasty messages online.
The research also explored young people’s involvement in others’ relationships. Although 61% of survey respondents had felt uncomfortable with the way someone they knew was treating someone else online, 34% had felt confident in intervening to stop harmful behaviours. This confidence is something that educators can use to foster positive peer group cultures – a direction of travel in education strongly supported by the report’s findings.

Tiffany Coates, HeadStart Kernow Community Coordinator, said:

“Digital Romance allowed young people from HeadStart Kernow to have their voices and experience heard. Their views have helped to produce this excellent piece of research which will shape the UK’s approach to how professionals work with young people in the digital age – especially with regard to their online safety. It’s not unusual for a young person living in Cornwall to have a close and meaningful relationship with another young person who lives in California – several thousand miles away and they may never meet face to face. This research helps us to understand how important these relationships may be to our most vulnerable young people and how to keep them safe.”

On education more generally, young people were generally positive about their online safety education: 94% reported receiving it, and 63% of those rated it as good or very good. However, relationships education appears to be lagging behind: Only 72% reported receiving education on relationship skills, and only 26% of these respondents rated it as good or very good.

Those participating in the study were generally keen to have support from adults to enjoy positive relationships online and offline without harm. They wanted adults to:

  • be non-judgemental and understand the reality of ‘digital romance’
  • share knowledge and experience about both positive and negative relationships
  • provide supportive relationships and spaces to think about the issues they face
  • address LGBT experiences

Brook has over 50 years’ experience working with young people and we currently deliver RSE in 12% of secondary schools in England. Find out more about our education work and sign up for Brook Learn, our free e-learning to empower, support and encourage you to deliver effective RSE.

Full Digital Romance Bibliography and Appendices can be found here

Notes to editors

  • The project was a collaboration between NCA-CEOP and Brook. Its rationale was that an understanding of young people’s normative use of technology can centrally inform the evolution of online safety and relationships and sex education.
  • Brook is the UK’s leading sexual health and wellbeing charity for under 25s. Brook supported 235,000 young people in 2016 through clinical services and education and wellbeing work.
  • CEOP is the child protection command of the National Crime Agency. Its education programme ‘Thinkuknow’ offers a wide range of information and support for children, young people, parents, and adults in the children’s workforce, with the aim of reducing sexual abuse and harm, and more broadly building young people’s skills in navigating relationships, digital technology and online platforms.
  • The project was led by researchers Dr Ester McGeeney (Brook) and Dr Elly Hanson (NCA-CEOP) and research took place between January and May 2017.
  • All statistics refer to proportions of survey respondents. All comparisons between groups of young people reported in the press release (for example, boys compared to girls) are statistically significant at a minimum of a 95% confidence level (p<.05).

For media enquiries please contact Brook's press office on 07789 682831 or email press@brook.org.uk

Notes to editors

Brook believes that young people should have access to great sexual health services and wellbeing support.

Brook provides free and confidential sexual health information, contraception, pregnancy testing, advice and counselling, testing and treatment for sexually transmitted infections and education programmes, reaching nearly 235,000 young people nationwide every year.
Read our Strategic Plan 2017-2020 and learn more about the difference we make in our latest Success Report.