How to encourage teens to make safe choices about relationships


A 2021 Ofsted investigation found high volumes of sexual harassment in schools, joining other similar reports of sexual misconduct in schools.

Help young people understand what healthy relationships look like and give them the tools to stay safe online with advice from our expert panel.

Rebecca Avery

Education Safeguarding Adviser, Kent County Council
Expert Website

How do children see sexual content online?

Children may be exposed to a range of sexual material, including online pornography or youth-produced sexual imagery (also known as ‘sexting‘ or CSAM).

These issues are not necessarily new; some of us may have experienced this as a result of an accidental typo in an internet search, or from deliberately looking up rude words out of curiosity.

What can parents and carers do?

Use parental control tools and filters to help reduce the risks of exposure to your child. However, it’s important to understand that these tools are only safety nets and cannot replace supervision and more hands-on techniques.

Build a positive and ongoing dialogue

Sex and relationships is an often uncomfortable topic to discuss with children. It’s difficult to know the right age to have these conversations and there can be real fears about ‘ruining’ innocence.

However, these are some of the most important conversations to have. You can support them with early age-appropriate chats about pornography and healthy relationships.

Exposure to sexual content is often confusing and distressing. So, it’s important to have conversations with children from an early age so they feel able to seek support and advice.  Avoid using shaming or blaming terms because a fear of punishment may prevent children from accessing help

The role of schools

Schools should speak with children about sexualised content as part of age appropriate relationships and sex education (RSE). The PSHE association, the Sex Education Forum and UK Council for Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS) all have useful guidance for schools and colleges about discussing issues such as pornography and ‘sexting’.

Schools and parents can often manage inappropriate sexualised behaviour by children. However, some cases might require specialist advice and support. It’s important for schools to have clear policies and procedures in place to support children who demonstrate problematic or abusive sexualised behaviours. Schools should access local procedures or support; this may include the Local Safeguarding Children Board, Preventative Services and Social Care teams.

What support is there for children?

Every child should have the right to feel safe, whether at home or at school.  It is important that children and young people understand what acceptable behaviour looks like and parents have a vital role in setting those boundaries for their children.

We are really pleased that relationship education has become a statutory subject and believe that preventing harmful sexual behaviour through proper, up-to-date sex and relationships education is immeasurably better than excluding children after the harm has been done.

Help young people understand true consent

Children and young people need to understand the meaning of true consent. Additionally, they should have the confidence to speak out if they are being harmed.

We need to make sure that we recognise the difference between early potentially harmful sexual behaviour and young peoples natural curiosity to experiment. We don’t want to unnecessarily criminalise the wrong behaviour.

Policy and guidance

The guidance on youth-produced sexual images is an example of how the police and schools can work together to respond in a proportionately appropriate way.

We all have a duty of care to safeguard and protect children and young people in our society. Moreover, young people need the opportunities to make safe choices online with parents supporting this and building their own good relationships with their children.

Police need to be ready to listen and support children and young people when they need us the most.

Keir McDonald

Founder and Director, EduCare
Expert Website

How can parents prevent harm from relationships online?

It is becoming increasingly difficult for parents to monitor their children in regard to who they interact with, what they do and what they see. For example, there is an increase in 13-14-year-olds thinking that sexting is normal and that learning about sexual relationships via pornographic sites is also the norm.

Good quality education on sex and relationships is key

Don’t shy away from talking to your children, and encourage them to talk to you. Conversations should be honest and non-judgemental; trust from an early age can then be encouraged.

In schools, good quality sex and relationships education is imperative and should be delivered by staff that are comfortable in doing so.

Schools should also think about utilising all staff, charities and agencies to come in and help deliver RSHE lessons. Pupils might feel uncomfortable with their Maths teacher, for example, delivering relationship advice.

Overall, children should be made to feel comfortable and listened to from an early age.

Dr Tamasine Preece

Head of Personal and Social Education
Expert Website

What can we do in light of reports about sexual misconduct between children in schools?

Unfortunately, unwanted touching, physical and verbal harassment has always taken place in schools. Whilst it is always very difficult for victims to come forward — and many don’t come forward at all — young people are being encouraged and empowered by school staff to come forward and speak to professionals about their experiences.

Schools have a duty of care to provide an environment that preserves the rights, dignity and safety of all students. In implementing such a serious punishment as a fixed-term exclusion, it sends a clear signal to the perpetrator that the behaviour is viewed as the serious offence that it is, as well as reassuring the victim that they have the schools support.

Ultimately, however, we are talking about children, no matter how grown up they may look and feel. It is so important that parents get there first to challenge the proliferation of unhelpful and unhealthy representations of sexual behaviour and, most importantly, to listen without judgement.

More to explore

See more resources and articles to keep children safe online.