IOE - Faculty of Education and Society


Combatting gendered, sexual risks and harms online during Covid-19

Developing resources for young people, parents and schools.

This project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC). It started in February 2021 and will end in June 2022.


Sexual and gender-based violence has emerged as a key issue during the pandemic – at home, in schools, on the streets, and online. While digital technologies have helped young people feel connected, they also opened them up to risks and harms such as grooming, harassment, and non-consensual image sharing.


Conducted by world-leading academics, and a sexual education charity, the School of Sexuality Education, we have gathered evidence gathered through surveys, focus groups, and interviews with 647 students, 77 parents, and 64 teachers/safeguarding leads across England, about the technology facilitated sexual and gender-based harms young people age 13-18 experienced during the pandemic.

Our research has identified challenges students, schools and parents face in addressing these issues, policy, and educational recommendations for preventing, mitigating, and coping with these risks and harms. We also highlight the need for the Department for Education and Ofsted to have clearer language relating to the scope and forms of technology facilitated sexual and gender-based violence.


Key findings

Normalised violence
  • Surveys, focus groups and interviews with 647 young people overwhelmingly show a desire for more comprehensive Relationship and Sex Education (RSE) covering topics including consent, healthy relationships, respect, dignity, and digital technologies.
  • The risks of technology facilitated sexual and gender-based violence is unevenly spread, and is experienced more by girls, trans, and gender-nonconforming youth, and increases for all genders with age. Girls, trans, and non-binary people face more sexually explicit risks and harms than boys.
  • The experiences, risks, and harms of technology facilitated gender and sexual violence are routinely normalised, trivialised, and dismissed by peers, teachers, and schools. Many of these practices are not taken seriously, and victims, rather than perpetrators are often punished.
Struggling schools
  • Schools are struggling to address issues of (technology facilitated) sexual and gender-based violence. Recent reports (Ofsted 2021; Ringrose et al. 2021), and the Everyone’s Invited campaign highlight sexual and gender-based violence as an urgent concern, while schools are given few resources or training.
  • Schools’ inability to address these issues was compounded by different factors including: teachers who do not recognise the scale or scope of the problem; teachers who are keen to address it, but have so little time dedicated to RSE or PHSE; school leaders who perpetuate rape culture and victim blaming attitudes; outdated policies and those that ignore the highly gendered and sexualised dynamic at play in peer on peer abuse.
  • The materials produced by the Department for Education and Ofsted do not address the realities of young people’s experiences. Policies do not appear to have been created in consultation with young people to address the complex risks and harms that they experience, or how these are rapidly changing amidst algorithmic and technological developments, new social media platforms of choice etc.
Parental awareness
  • Most parents have minimal understanding of how the social media platforms their children use work, and therefore, what specific risks and harms they experience there. Many parents also displayed fear towards the technology.
  • Many parents attempt to address online risks and harms through using filters and controls over their children’s devices, rather than say through conversations. This strategy is inadequate as our survey with youth showed that over 50% knew how to bypass these parental controls.
  • Some parents expressed that they didn’t know how to start conversations with their children about these issues and need support on what to say. Many parents engage in these conversations long after their child has started experiencing them – we argue conversations about respect, consent, and online behaviour needs to start happening much sooner.
  • Snapchat and Instagram and the platforms where most girls experience online harms and risks, whereas gaming platforms pose the most risk for boys.
  • Social media companies must be held accountable for online harms that young people experience. There are serious concerns with automatic privacy settings disabled for young people, exposing them to various harms and risks (e.g. grooming and cyberflashing by unknown adults). Reporting features rarely lead to satisfactory resolutions, with some social media companies not responding to reports (e.g. Snapchat), and others saying what is reported can’t be addressed (e.g. it doesn’t break ‘community standards’).