Green Cross CodeSex education is a hot topic at the moment, and so it should be. The recent Channel 4 documentary ‘Sex in Class’ highlighted the general naivety of our teenagers when it came to sex and sexual health.

The programme suggested that one of the reasons the UK’s teenage pregnancy rates remain some of the highest in Western Europe is because of the lack of quality sex education in schools. Goedele Liekens, the Belgian sexologist who was the feature of the documentary, is currently campaigning for sexual health to be made in to a GCSE. Personally, I think it’s vitally important that our children are educated about sex from the earliest possible age, to help them make the best choices for their futures. As we are all well aware, not taking the necessary precautions can have huge, life changing ramifications that can affect our children for the remainder of their lives.

As with most television programmes these days, particularly those that provoke discussion, it was accompanied with #sexinclass to encourage us to tweet about the sex education debate. The documentary coincided with the recent sentencing of a 21-year-old man under new laws relating to revenge porn pursuant to the Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015. This got me thinking about something that I’m very passionate about, and what is, I believe, equally as important in today’s world as quality sexual health education – online health. In other words, educating our children properly on how to use social media safely to protect their future.

You may wonder how I’m making the link between sexual health and online health. I’m not thinking here about teaching our children the dangers of talking to strangers online, although, of course, that is extremely important, but relatively well discussed. I’m thinking here of something that hasn’t really been talked about – the impact a tweet, or post on Facebook or Instagram, or a picture on Snapchat can potentially have on our children’s futures.

As a Media Lawyer, I have come to realise that adults, let alone children, simply don’t understand the power they have, quite literally, in their hands. The availability of social media, and the fact we can be constantly connected to these platforms via our mobile phones or tablets, means that they have become an extension of us. This means that what were once casual comments or expressions of emotion, such as anger or frustration, or immature remarks, jokes or pranks, that would have been kept private, or perhaps fleetingly shared with friends during breaks between lessons, and then equally as quickly forgotten, have now become formalised and permanent. The fact that we are constantly connected to social media, and that we have perhaps lost the ability to distinguish online from offline life, means that these ‘moments’, borne out of emotion, frustration, or just lack of experience, in the click of a mouse, or flick of a finger, publicised for the world to see: in other words, we’re substituting offline conversation for tweeting and posting.

In a world where my 9-year-old nephew has a tablet for school, and will soon be coding, and my 4-year-old nephew can operate my iPhone and iPad quicker than I can, what this means for our children is that things they post or tweet about as a child can have a huge impact on their future and, in particular, their career prospects. Personally, I think this is grossly unfair. If I was judged by some of the things I said or did as teenager, out of immaturity, naivety, youthful over-exuberance and the pressure of fitting-in with my peers, I might not be in a job. However, this is now the world we live in and, believe it or not, young people and adults are getting judged on what they posted online during their younger years. Of course, the well-known case to illustrate this point is that of Paris Brown. At 17-years-old, Paris was the first Youth Police Crime Commissioner. However, after just 6 days, she resigned from her role over comments she had posted on twitter dating back to when she was as young as 14-years-old that could be interpreted as being homophobic and racist. In an interview, she admitted of having ‘fallen into a trap of behaving with bravado on social networking sites’, but denied she held these views. A Google search for ‘Paris Brown’ today still lists, within the top five results, a Daily Mail article from 2013 calling her ‘foul-mouthed’ and ‘offensive’. Thus, the stigma attached to these comments could follow Paris for the rest of her career.

Paris’ predicament, and the damage that using social media irresponsibly can have on our children’s prospects, is something that I am increasingly aware of as a University Lecturer. In my role I work closely with large employers, who in turn work with my students. Without exception, when I ask them whether they look at candidates’ online activity before deciding whether to offer an interview, they have all admitted they do, even if this is done unofficially, without the knowledge of their Human Resources department. Indeed, in 2013, research carried out by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found that 2 out of 5 employers look at candidates’ online activity or social media profiles to inform their recruitment decisions. More recent research, presented by the University of Paris-Sud at the recent Amsterdam Privacy Conference 2015, suggests that around 75% of employers use social media to screen candidates. However, based on my experience of working with large companies in my role academic role, as many organisations do not officially use social media for this purpose (but do so unofficially), I would suggest that these figures are conservative, and are likely to be higher,

In my opinion we cannot start to educate our children early enough on how to behave responsibly online. If they are old enough to have a tablet or mobile phone, they are old enough to know the pitfalls of their online decisions. Ideally, teaching children about online health would be built into the curriculum at primary school level and, like sexual health should form a GCSE. Equally, it would be great if companies signed-up to a code of conduct agreeing for an amnesty on online indiscretions occurring before a certain age.  However, I’m aware that changing the curriculum, or the recruitment and selection policies of companies, is not that easy, but there are lots of things that parents, schools, colleges and universities can do.

Firstly, I would encourage the use of a ‘green cross-type’ code for online use that could be used by parents, teachers, lecturers and, most importantly, children and young people. So, what would this ‘online code’ look like? My advice is always to PAUSE before sending, sharing, posting or tweeting about anything. We all say and do things in the heat of the moment but, of course, offline this is often quickly forgotten, whereas online, as we know, it’s a very different story. So, here is my suggestion.

  • (P)Remember that everything you put online has the potential to be seen by anybody and everybody, and that it can be PERMANENT.
  • (A)Before posting, tweeting, sharing, texting or uploading think about your AUDIENCE and how it could affect them and/or their opinion of you and others, now and later on.
  • (U)If you are still UNSURE ask for a second opinion from somebody you trust. Equally, if you receive a text, tweet, message or picture that you are UNSURE about tell somebody you trust.
  • (S) STOP AND THINK what impact your online activity may have on your privacy, or the privacy of others. Remember (P).
  • (E)If you are uncomfortable with anything that’s been tweeted, posted, shared or uploaded END your involvement immediately and tell somebody you trust.

Most importantly enjoy being online and using social media. Follow these steps and have fun!

Secondly, as it seems many employers judge adults by their online activity as children and young people, they should take some responsibility. It’s important to get employers involved with the education process. When my students are told by representatives from a big company or law firm that their online profiles are part of their consideration when deciding who to employ, it shocks them (this is the point they all frantically start to check their social media accounts in my lecture) into taking positive action. Of course, an employer’s involvement can be tailored to the age of the students. For instance, I have used employers to help my students design appropriate Linkedin accounts.

Thirdly, I would encourage parents and schools to use the NSPCC website, which provides excellent help and advice on online safety and useful guidance on how to discuss the subject with children and young people. See the NSPCC here for more information.

Educating our children on the birds and the bees of online use is, in my opinion, as important as sex education, and should be equally as topical. Children are using social media far at a very early age – probably far earlier than they are thinking about sex (at least I hope so). What they say or do online can have a huge impact on their future. Consequently, if we as a society will judge our adults of tomorrow on what they say or do online as children today, we owe it to them to make them aware of how to be healthy online, and how to protect their futures.

Peter Coe is a Lecturer in Law at Aston University and a Barrister at East Anglian Chambers. A version of this post was recently published by Education Technology.