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Digital Romance: A research project exploring young people’s use of technology in their romantic relationships and love lives

Digital Romance is a research project led by Brook and the CEOP command of the NCA that set out to explore how young people are using digital technologies in their romantic relationships. We were interested in how young people use tech as they flirt, meet new partners, start relationships, communicate in relationships, negotiate pressure, break up and survive post break up. We also wanted to know what support young people might like from others to enable them to have enjoyable and safe relationships.

The project is based on a collaboration between Brook and CEOP-NCA. Brook is the UK’s leading sexual health and wellbeing charity for under 25s. Brook supports 235,000 young people each year through clinical services and education and wellbeing work. CEOP is a command of the National Crime Agency. Its education programme ‘Thinkuknow’ offers a wide range of information and support for children, young people, parents, and adults in the children’s workforce, with the aim of reducing sexual abuse and harm, and more broadly building young people’s skills in navigating relationships, digital technology and online platforms.

Led by researchers Dr Ester McGeeney (Brook) and Dr Elly Hanson (NCA-CEOP), the research took place between January and May 2017 and used a mixed methods approach involving an online survey, in person focus groups and one-to-one interviews. The project was motivated by the desire to evolve online safety education by providing an in-depth insight into young people’s views and experiences. The project was influenced by US research conducted by the PEW Research Centre (Lenhart, Smith & Anderson, 2015) that explored the digital romantic practices of young Americans.

Arguably, up until now, much of the focus of online safety work has been narrow – exploring the risks of online communication such as the unsafe sharing of personal details, the loss of control of material (especially images), and the facilitation of abusive and bullying behaviours. At times this approach has been at the expense of acknowledging the positive role of digital technology in young people’s lives and the complicated ways in which young people experience and negotiate risk.

Our project aims to understand young people’s everyday use of technology within their relationships, and the ways in which the pleasures, harms and risks of interpersonal relationships may be influenced by technology. In doing so it aims to understand vulnerabilities in tandem with agency and participation (YouthNet, 2016; Nielsen, Paasonen & Spisak, 2015). Our hope is that a deeper understanding of both the positive affordances of technology as well as areas of risk and harm will enable us all to deliver relevant, nuanced education that speaks to young people’s dayto day experiences.

This report provides a high-level overview of the research methodology and the key findings and themes. It will be useful to educators and policy makers working to support and enable young people to have positive and safe relationships online and offline.

Our hope is that the research will be used to inform the development of new educational approaches and to update existing materials. It should be acknowledged that some of the findings are open to diverse interpretations. However for us this is not a ‘negative’, rather we see reflective debate as being an important part of the evolution of education.

In Appendix A we signpost readers to existing resources that provide more information about common practices and technologies, and those that are ‘toolkits’ for useful conversations and approaches with young people. We invite others to draw on the findings from Digital Romance to develop interventions and strategies in this space.