Research Impact


'Sexting' and the school curriculum: research for gender equality in the digital world


12 December 2014


UCL research heightened awareness of the implications of new media for young people's relationships, self-image and well-being and safety, and influenced guidelines on sex and relationship education and on internet controls.

Teenagers, especially girls, face contradictory expectations in our increasingly sexualised Western society. Digital technology has added to the complexity of the routes they have to negotiate in order to stay both 'cool' and 'safe'. Professor Jessica Ringrose at the UCL Institute of Education studies how young people manage these pressures, rise above them, or are hurt by them.

Until Professor Ringrose and her colleagues began a pioneering pilot study for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) in 2012, there was little information on the extent or nature of 'sexting', or the exchange of sexual messages or images through mobile phones and the internet. They showed that schoolgirls face increasing pressure to provide sexually explicit pictures of themselves via phone or internet. Neither boys nor girls were sure about how to navigate sexual communication and relationships, particularly when they became coercive, both online and at school. Young people felt there was silence and secrecy around 'sexting' and uniformly asked for more support at school.

In a related study, published in her important book Postfeminist Education, Professor Ringrose found that girls face increasing pressures around sexualisation and sexism in their peer groups, at school and in society, and argued that young sexual girlhood is being 're-victimised' and 're-shamed', with the girl body again the focal point of a patriarchal, moralising gaze. She concluded that sex education needs to deal with issues such as sexual bullying, 'slut shaming' and youth as users of pornography, "opening up spaces to discuss girls' own desires, in order to foster girls' bodily and sexual autonomy".

Professor Ringrose's research struck a popular chord because so little was understood by the adult world about youth, gender and sexuality in the digital age. It required careful navigation of the mass media minefield, to help foster sensitive public discourse on uncomfortable subjects. When Postfeminist Education was covered in the Huffington Post, Professor Ringrose's work found an important champion in Diane Abbott, MP. Drawing heavily on Ringrose's research and recommendations, the then shadow health minister called for a "revolution" in sex education to combat Britain's emerging "hypersexualised culture". "We need to start a national conversation between parents and their children about sex, pornography and technology," she said in a wide-reported 2013 address to the Fabian Women's Network later dubbed the 'pornification' speech. The speech, and its coverage, immediately sparked a vibrant national debate, with hundreds of comments and blogposts, bringing this important subject to the forefront of public attention.

Professor Ringrose's research at the UCL IOE has led to wide influence on national policy. She was heavily cited in the 2010 Home Office report The Sexualisation of Young People, particularly its recommendations around new media technology. She also advised a report for the Scottish Parliament and was a founding member of the Equalities Office 'Campaign for Body Confidence' which has influenced policies on health and gender and well-being in schools. Following her sexting report for the NSPCC the children's charity re-drafted its policy recommendations, calling for "all professionals to receive training in the latest technology so that they are better equipped to deal with sexting" and arguing that "secondary schools and the communications industry should give young people better protection through education which promotes considerate, respectful relationships". Ringrose's research helped underpin the first government-supported guidance for schools on 'sexting', published in March 2013, and has been used to develop training, advisory materials, and a teaching film.

As a consultant for the UK charity Family Lives, Ringrose's work influenced its TeenBoundaries sex and relationships education workshops, which have benefited more than 7,000 young people aged 11-18. In 2012, the charity used the NSPCC report to re-tool its resources for schools, designing two new workshops to address 'sexting' and pornography, "two of the biggest challenges facing young people in today's society", according to the charity.

Funders included the NSPCC