Identify the existing lay theories and what needs to change
The topic of online pornography is met with reluctance by policymakers and educators who see engagement with these issues in educational settings as ‘risky’. Our research taught us that pornography is ubiquitous and that sexually explicit material online can have a troubling effect on young people, but there are ways to minimise harm. Hence, we sought to change the existing debate and demonstrate that curricula on pornography can teach young people to respond more critically, helping them assess and counter pornography’s influence. Young people need high-quality relationship education and improved digital literacy, wherever they live. It is imperative to prepare adolescents for the future, ideally allowing them to benefit from evidence-based lessons on online pornography, digital health, safety, security, and sexual health.
Theory into practice: identify the pathways for different stakeholders
During our study, some children and young people asked explicitly for help and support, whether in the form of further education or blocking the access to undesired materials. We were committed to ensuring that young people’s voices were heard, and so positioned our results to provide fresh leverage for a range of statutory and non-statutory organisations, politicians and NGOs to make changes in sex education.
It is vital that researchers communicate the substance (and importance) of their work effectively. Here, effectively does not mean simply presenting the facts and expecting the empirical data to speak for itself. While this may suffice in the halls of academia, the current climate demands that researchers are able to explain their work in ways that stakeholders will not only respond to but also see clear pathways toward putting the research and theories into action in their own field.
Become actively involved in developing and shaping public debates
To ensure that research is applied in practice, researchers must become actively involved in shaping public debates, including developing strong links with a variety of actors from NGOs to government departments and the media. We built on the extensive national and international media coverage of research to contribute to structural impacts. Notably, The Children and Social Work Act 2017 adopted our recommended change in priorities to Relationships and Sex Education and made such education compulsory in all secondary schools in England since September 2020.
More recently, the research findings have been addressed by the UK Online Safety Bill 2022, which promises new measures to allow internet users more control over who can contact them and what they see online, and requires all websites that publish or host pornography to verify their users are over 18.
Identify a shared priority with your stakeholders
Regarding the impact of online pornography on children, there is little doubt that schools can play a pivotal role in both education and safeguarding. Yet schools are rightly cautious when someone, academic or otherwise, comes to them with an offer to discuss online pornography with their students. This is to be expected and, in fact, commended. The motivation for this trepidation is an unquestionable desire to act in the best interests of young people, putting students first; a shared priority of educator and researcher alike, and exactly where common ground can be reached. Establishing these shared objectives is important to the formation of relationships that are built on a foundation of trust and mutual understanding. Most stakeholders, especially those working with children, hold the best interests of young people at heart. When researchers can effectively communicate that we share this motivation, a motivation that is also supported by empirical evidence, we are better able to engage in a productive dialogue that prioritises our mutual interest in advancing the safety and wellbeing of children.
Surmounting obstacles: be clear about the benefits of your work
Researchers may encounter many barriers in attempting to work with schools to enhance student wellbeing, given the bureaucracy of the education system, which is often subject to political considerations that frustrate both researcher and educator alike. Even when teachers are willing to engage with research-informed theory, school gatekeepers may act to deny access or scuttle attempts to pilot new programs — especially when words like “pornography” or “sex” are mentioned.
An essential aspect of communicating these ideas to headteachers, teachers, and other gatekeepers in the education system is to put the focus of the research where it always should be: on the young people who will benefit most from the work and who actually contributed to the theories being developed. Schools do not have to trust academic researchers — no matter what our credentials are, they do not necessarily “know” us and, as such, may be uncertain what our motivations may be. To operate with transparency is key, not just around our methods, but to our purpose as well.
For stakeholders to truly feel comfortable and confident to co-operate with us, we must work with them closely to explain both our research and how it informs our recommendations; satisfy any questions and concerns they may have; and offer them a legitimate opportunity to become more invested in the project, or even contribute to its ongoing development. Actions speak louder than words, and by bringing stakeholders into the process rather than keeping them at an arms-length, we are better able to engender trust and ensure that evidence-based programs are reaching their target audience.
Identify an existing need to overcome resistance
One mission of schools is to elevate young voices and help to respond when those voices tell them there is a need for intervention, such as safety education around online pornography. Coproduction of knowledge is valuable for a variety of reasons. When theory is developed with the active participation and involvement of the very children affected by the issues, stakeholders are more likely to become engaged, and they recognise the need for a proactive and evidence-based response. While schools may provide a unique opportunity to raise awareness of harm and of the need to improve support, the truth is that access will often be denied to researchers who seek to disrupt the educational status quo. It is vital to make every effort to talk to stakeholders, not to miss key opportunities to effect change and shape the public discussion.
Communicate your ideas through a diversified lateral approach
Communicating research-based theory requires a diversified, lateral approach. Young people do not exist in a vacuum, and a classroom is not the sole venue through which they (and their parents or caregivers) may be reached. It is for this reason that a commitment to public academia is so crucial. No matter whether it is media contributions, social media engagement, contribution to petitions, collaboration with NGOs or, even, a blog like this one — all can play an important role in agenda-setting, education and awareness and, most crucially, in elevating the voices and experiences of the young people who, via the process of co-production, are such a central part of the research that is produced.
When a major barrier to embedding child protection programs around online pornography in schools is the reluctance by policymakers and educators to engage with contentious topics in an educational setting, the purpose of this public approach becomes even more essential to normalise this discourse and to transform what was once a controversial topic into a profoundly uncontroversial one. If this can be achieved, a greater opportunity will emerge to discuss important, youth-informed research on online pornography directly with young people and, in doing so, improve our ability to safeguard children on the internet.