Sexual harassment has been “normalised” in schools and colleges. This is the horrifying conclusion of Ofsted’s newly published report into harassment in the education system. This has to be a damming indictment of the impact of social media and messaging apps on the present generation of young people as the report shows much of this harassment and abuse has shifted online. Worse still, school leaders haven’t recognised this and don’t know what to do about it.
If you haven’t seen the headlines, Ofsted’s findings were shocking. Having spoken to 900 young children from 32 state and independent schools and colleges, the education regulator found that:
- 90% of girls had been sent explicit pictures or videos and
- 92% of girls said that sexist name calling was commonplace.
You might be thinking this is solely an issue affecting girls. The mainstream media has certainly reported it that way. While the evidence shows girls and women are more likely to experience harassment than boys and men, you don’t have to go any further than the report’s executive summary to discover that:
- 74% of boys said sexist name calling was commonplace and
- 50% of boys reported receiving explicit pictures or videos.
Regardless of whether it’s boys or girls on the receiving end of this abuse (or responsible for it), I am stunned by these statistics. What’s happened to childhood?
It doesn’t get any better. At one school Ofsted inspectors visited, the girls said it wasn’t uncommon to receive 10 or so requests a day for nude or semi-nude images.
As you can imagine, Ofsted has produced a number of recommendations to tackle this problem. It says schools need to get better at teaching Relationships, Sex and Health Education, schools and colleges need to get better at recognising harassment, teachers should receive better training and cross-agency working should be improved to help with safeguarding and so on.
This is all well and good, but I’m left wondering what parents are doing about this? Why are children behaving this way at school and college? Why has this behaviour become “normalised” in education settings?
I’d argue a lot of it comes down to easy access to porn and other unsuitable material. In fact, Ofsted’s report says as much. Schools and colleges have a role to play in educating young people about these issues, but it is parents who facilitate such behaviour by giving kids smart phones.
I have to be blunt and say I think many parents underestimate the impact of social media and messaging apps on young people. In my experience, many parents give children smart phones at too young an age and don’t monitor what they’re doing. I have known children as young as 10 start to self-harm or launch targeted cyber bullying campaigns after being given smart phones.
One dad I knew told me he had given his child a smart phone while her age was in single figures precisely so she could learn about the online world. This child happened to be a friend of my daughter’s and her online behaviour was incredibly risky.
You’re probably wondering how this is relevant. Well, these kids grow up and take these laissez faire attitudes to online behaviour with them to secondary school. Add in the inevitable hormone rush that comes with growing up, a heavy dose of FOMO and a desire to fit in with classmates and you have a disaster in the making. In fact it’s not a disaster in the making, Ofsted has made clear it’s a disaster that’s impacting children and young people now.
What happens at home is vitally important. Parents have to set boundaries. School should really only be reinforcing messages about online behaviour and maybe fill in a few blanks.
Not, you understand, that the tech companies should be let off the hook. The age verification process for the majority of social media and messaging apps are appalling. I am yet to come across an app that has a truly robust age verification process. For the overwhelming majority you simply punch in your date of birth and, bam, you’re away, so long as you have claimed to be at least 13 years of age.
My great hope is that the Government’s forthcoming Online Safety Bill will force tech companies to take a greater duty of care of service users and force them to put proper age verification checks in place. This, combined with greater parental oversight and better education from schools will hopefully go some way to remedying this horrible situation, a situation that is destroying the innocence and childhood of a generation of youngsters.