Sexting, cyber bullying, and social media: Sex ed in the modern era


Sex education has evolved over the years from a basic understanding of the birds and the bees to more sophisticated conversations about relationships, technology and the law.

Sex ed can be an awkward and uncomfortable parental responsibility for all involved.

Adding to the complexity, each generation seems to face issues that are difficult to understand and relate to for their parents and carers.

Schools and organisations are trying to bridge the gap - offering a basic understanding of the process and more sophisticated conversations about relationships, technology and the law.

Emily Standfield, a year 8 student at Ringwood Secondary College in Victoria, said teenagers today like to get to know each other through text messages and social media over the internet. 

"We have instagram and facebook and snapchat and kick it everything there's so many different apps [end olay] and everyone is using this to socialise when we're not at school so we go home and then we straight away go on our phones and socialise." said Emily.

Fellow student Jaslyn King agrees.

She said as well as developing relationships with people on social media, they're also starting to go to parties.

"We use that to communicate now, and not many people pick up the phone and have a conversation. There are always Friday night parties, whatever, it's.. that's also a way to communicate with people, go out and have fun." said Jaslyn.

But new ways to form relationships bring new challenges.

Many schools across the country are trying to address the new challenges in addition to offering more traditional sex education classes.

Ringwood Secondary College holds well-being days for students at each year level.

Teacher Charlie Hetherington said educators want to help parents develop well-informed and socially competent young people.

"It might dispel some myths, it might be giving them some societal norms about what are behavioural expectations when they're out in the community; in particular, obviously cyber-bullying, the way that they use the internet; social media is something that we're needing to constantly remind them about where they sit within the law but also how they should be treating each other." said Ms Hetherington.

Ms Hetherington says 13 and 14-year-olds start to become more independent.

Tazmyn Jewell from Victoria Legal Aid runs one well-being session and said many young people don't realise that some types of flirting on mobile phones can be a serious offence.

"lt certainly is part of normal courtship or society these days for young people so I guess that's a shock for them," she said.

"But we feel that there is a need for education in relation to the law so that people know their rights, as well as the laws if they're possibly getting in trouble with breaking them. So it's very important."

Sending a raunchy photo to a boyfriend or girlfriend's phone is often intended as a bit of harmless fun for many young people.

But sexting, as it's become known, can have serious legal consequences.

In some states, under 18's can be prosecuted, go to jail or be placed on the sex offenders register for sexting.

Recent legislation in Victoria means those who even threaten to spread images can be jailed for up to one year.

In another school well-being session, boys and girls are separated to discuss gender stereotypes.

Mitch Cureton, 14, said he learned how important it was to be a good community member.

"Yeah so we learned about what it’s like to be a man, what responsibilities you have, we also learned about bystanders in incidents of bullying and domestic violence," he said.

"I think it was good because I haven't heard a lot of these stories and stuff, you get to learn what's right and what's wrong throughout your life, and this helps you realise what you really should be doing." 

Suzy Chandler, principal at Fintona Girls School, has been teaching sex ed since the 1970s.

"In the old days if you wanted to go and buy Playboy (magazine), you would have had to front up at the local newsagent with all the attendant embarrassment. It wouldn't have been on a shelf, you would have had to ask for it. Now you could be a 7 or 8-year-old doing some homework and something can pop up on your screen and there's no control over it, so I think that's a really big part of the discussion that needs to be part of sex ed, you can't be an ostrich any more." said Ms Chandler.

The sessions are run by non-government agency Sex Education Australia and cover a full range of content from basic biology to issues of consent.

Facilitator Justine Kiely-Scott said young people expect to get open and honest answers about sex.

"I think it's really important that we as teachers and parents and educators are willing to answer those questions openly and honestly because we don't want them going to Google, because that's so accessible, when you think about in the primary area, you don't want them Googling certain things so its very important that we're willing to have a discussion and answer their questions." she said.

The National Curriculum said students at appropriate intervals from year three to ten, that's ages 8 to 16, are to learn some form of sex education.

However it offers little detail as to what that should include.

A National Survey of Australian Secondary Students and Sexual Health found 43 per cent of teenagers were getting their sexuality info from sex education classes.

Students at Fintona Girls School say they also get information from friends, movies, TV and other media sources.

"I get a lot of information from my peers and friends and especially from the media I think." said 17-year-old Olivia Lin.

According to 15-year-old Allison Wells it's nice to get everyone on the same page.

"There is a massive variation because there are girls that are maturing faster, or slower." she said Ms Wells.

Inez Trambas, 16, said she appreciates information from adults - other than her parents.

"You don't have to meet people face to face as much and I think that that our parents probably don't understand that as much, like they wonder how people get so close when they haven't met as many times perhaps when they had to when they were younger, cause everyone is just talking to each other all the time, texting, messaging, whatever." says Ms Trambas.

Ms Chandler says that's why it's so important schools deliver a broad range of advice.

"You're not trying to say don't do this, or do this. You know, I think that some people think that if you have a sex ed program it's going to encourage sexual behaviour. That's just absolute nonsense. You know what you want to do is provide information about the possible landscape that exists for students outside of the school and make sure that they're well informed to make good choices." says Ms Chandler. 

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