EUROPE: Sexual rights and risks among youth online

[26 October 2015] - Children and youth are one of the fastest-growing groups of internet users, bringing them great opportunities – but also new risks.

The European Commission-funded children’s rights network eNACSO commissioned LSE’s Professor Sonia Livingstone and colleague Jessica Mason to review current knowledge about children and young people’s developing sexuality in relation to new media environments.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child includes the right to freedom  of expression but also emphasises that the interests of the child should be considered ‘in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child’.

This raises questions both in principle and practice for children’s rights and safety in a digital context. Whether content is beneficial or harmful can often depend on the particular interaction that a child has with it, and at what stage.

Meanwhile, teachers and parents find it hard to keep up with the ever evolving digital world, and the internet itself is largely unregulated as concerns child protection.

The researchers looked at whether and how internet access makes a difference, for better or worse, and whether intervention is required. What risks and opportunities do 10-17 year olds face when seeking or encountering sexual information or experiences online?

The literature review found significant links between children’s online and offline experiences, with offline vulnerability often having online implications. For example, LGBT youth report the highest levels of sexual harassment online, but also benefit from online information about sexual health.

Exposure to pornography is likely to create less progressive attitudes to gender roles as well as greater acceptance of casual sex. With the highly gendered ideal encountered in digital spaces, girls in particular are under pressure to be thin, send sexts and conform to other gendered behaviours.

More research on how young people understand the concept of consent is needed to alleviate the tensions between the right to sexual expression, privacy and child protection.

The study concluded that children and young people should be directly consulted on these matters; that sex and relationship education should start earlier and be a continuous process, and that schools, governments and technology providers should offer more support to parents to enable them to guide their children on such issues.


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