Update 8.3.19: TES published a version of this article: https://www.tes.com/news/lets-talk-about-sexting-consent-and-online-relationships.

The statistics paint a picture: one in ten young people have been pressured by their boy/girlfriend to share a nude image; and a quarter have witnessed someone secretly taking a sexual image of someone and sharing it online.  ‘Consent’ is conspicuous by its absence, which is why it’s such a hot topic in relationships and sex education.  Young people are being shamed into school and community exclusion and we want to change that.  But when we talk about consent and online relationships, there’s a missing piece of the jigsaw.

Here’s a question: what is the first thing you would do if a stranger fell ill in the street?

  1. Stop to help
  2. Take a photo
  3. Take a video
  4. Livestream it 

Unfortunately, these days the answer seems to be anything but the first one.  Maybe technology is like wearing sunglasses that filter out the true impact of our behaviour.  Maybe it emboldens us to act in ways we’d be ashamed of in any other context.  We seem to have developed different norms of behaviour online.  Is it a problem that we bark commands at our smart speakers, expecting immediate acquiescence to our desires?  As we communicate with – rather than through – technology, does it matter if we’re rude or respectful, patient or impatient? 

The impact of our online behaviour is significant in our offline lives.  Teachers and school staff have had their social media accounts hacked or faked in order to share embarrassing personal information or photographs.  Pupils can experience the shame and re-victimisation of a bullying incident which is shared online and can be watched on repeat by every pupil in school. We can use apps to covertly track, video, photograph or listen to employees, children or spouses.    Sharenting (over sharing by parents of their children’s images or data) is evolving.  It is no longer just a case of risking future identify theft.  Children are a commodity online – there is an income to be made though a family YouTube channel.  Is it only celebrities who photoshop their children to perfection? 

Here’s the rub: The importance we place on consent within online relationships is a function of how we value consent in every part of our online lives. We cannot expect young people to value consent in online relationships if we regularly delegitimise it elsewhere. And consent is routinely abused online. It is devalued, invisible or perfunctory at best.  It is reduced to a box-ticking agreement to terms and conditions which haven’t been read because they’re too long and verbose.   Technology involves psychological levers to gain compliance and extend screen time – think of the social media ‘likes’ which define popularity, the notifications to regularly bring you back to an app, or the virtual rewards that signal accomplishment in an online game.  Onward, ever onward.  A company showed off a new chatbot that fooled the caller into believing they were talking with a real human.  Fake videos have been created to serve a political agenda.  Technology with manipulation at its heart.

So, what can we do about this problem? The good news is that change is afoot. Consent is an increasing part of our vocabulary when we talk of digital matters.  There is greater public awareness of online data and privacy.  Government is talking tough about the need for regulation.  Parents are under pressure to demonstrate better online role modelling.

In a school environment, there are educational materials to teach about consent within the context of relationships, online risk and the collective issue of online consent in all its guises.  Teachers can utilise a range of digital citizenship materials to ensure that young people are not only digitally literate, but also supported to adopt appropriate values and ethics online.  

And when we talk with young people about consent in relationships, let’s root that conversation in the language of our online lives.  Let’s talk about data rights, manipulative technology, and authenticity online.  Let’s talk about power, image, shame and empathy, and how we can use technology as a force for good.  That’s the missing piece of the puzzle.