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13 December 2017
By Rebecca Avery

CEOP and Brook publish 'Digital Romance' report

CEOP and Brook have published new research which aims to explore and 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.

Digital Romance was 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. 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.

Research does not always recognise the positive role of digital technology in young people’s lives and the complicated ways in which young people experience and negotiate risk. The report hopes that a deeper understanding of  the positives as well as risks will enable all agencies to deliver relevant, nuanced education that speaks to young people’s day to day experiences.

Key Findings

  • The study involved 2,135 young people aged 14-24
    • Interviews took place with 10 young people aged 14-25
    • 13 focus groups took place involving 69 young people aged 11-20

Young People's Views and Experiences on 'Digital Romance'


  • 84% have flirted at least once or twice online and 87% face to face.
  • 25% of young people report that they flirt online a lot and 23% report that they flirt face to face a lot.
  • Flirting is a nuanced practice with lots of different styles and levels
    • Often simply about fun, relaxation and connecting
    • Technology is ideally suited to the codes and ambiguity inherent to flirting
    • It may also afford more control – but also, for some, more pressure
    • In general face-to-face flirting was seen as more emotionally risky as well as beneficial

Nudes (or 'Sexting')

  • Children stated numerous reasons for sending 'nudes': fun, intimacy, confidence, lack of confidence, validation, pressure
    • 34% sent a nude/sexual image to someone they were interested in
    • 20% sent to their friends for fun
    • 28% felt pressurized to send one of themselves
    • 7% felt pressurized to send one of someone else
    • 26% received 1 of someone they knew sent by another
    • 9% sent one of someone they knew to someone else

Meeting partners online

  • 38% of survey participants had met someone online who they started seeing
    • (55% of trans young people)
  • 5% of survey participants reported that they had never met their partner face to face


  • 6% of survey participants have met someone in person who they first met online who wasn’t who they said they were.
    • 2.6% had experienced this ‘quite a few times’ to ‘a lot’
    • Significantly more boys and more gay young people were affected

Relationship pressures

  • High levels of unwanted ‘checking up on’ via tech (16% have asked their partner to stop)
    • Technology can be conducive to jealousy, as well as cheating and its discovery

Break ups

  • 84% had been broken up with via messaging services
  • 43% had been broken up with in person
  • 25% had been 'ghosted'
  • 25% had been broken up with via phone call
  • 7% had been broken up with via a social media status change

Post break up

  • Breaking up is hard – and tech can freeze emotionally difficult moments in time
    • Technology also facilitates the playing out of preoccupation and ambivalence
      • 72% report staying friends with an ex on social media
      • 54% report removing them from all social media accounts
      • 54% report using social media to see what their ex is up to
      • More girls report both removing and checking up on ex

Online Safety Education: Young People's views

  • Most participants had received education about online safety & relationships.
    • Young people reported they were aware of online risk and adopt a range of practices to manage it
  • Online safety education was favourably rated, however it was sometimes  viewed as too narrow or negative

Vulnerabilities & blind-spots - content not covered through online safety education

  • Desire for popularity and status (linked to insecurity)
  • Dealing with break-ups
  • Peer pressure
  • Gendered expectations
  • Perceptions of their being a 'Hook-up' culture

What support would young people like to help them enjoy positive relationships online/offline without harm?

  • 87% would like online self-help for young people with relationship difficulties
  • 78% would like support via SRE through online modules
  • 78% would like more tips and guides about using tech safely
  • 77% would like peer mentoring
  • 73% would like more programmes for parents about supporting their children to have good relationships

What they would like… from adults

  • Non-judgment and understanding about ‘digital romance’
  • Supportive relationships and positive ‘spaces’
  • Impart knowledge and experience about both positive and negative relationship
  • Address LGBT experiences

What they would like…from other young people

  • Be nice
  • Call out bad or hurtful behaviour
  • Support and sharing

What they would like…from teachers

  • Teach media literacy
  • Build confidence
  • More time and space throughout education on SRE
  • Promote positive relationship norms and challenge negatives
  • Facilitate peer-led learning
  • Support systems
  • Honesty and respect

What they would like...from parents

  • Close bonds
  • Less threats and punishment; build trust
  • Everyday conversations
  • Differing views on monitoring and restrictions – reflective of the complexities and nuance around this

Suggested implications

  • Specific attention to relationship skills and knowledge throughout a child’s education; not just a few  'ad hoc' lessons
  • Make use of interactive technology to deliver some PSHE – e.g. online modules
  • Promote positive teacher-child; parent-child; and peer-peer relationships
  • Build holistic self-esteem and confidence in young people
  • Support young people in supporting others
  • Develop and promote a ‘cultural change’ by building positive school cultures

Suggested themes for schools to address within PSHE

  • Bystander empowerment
  • Media literacy
  • What good relationships look like; online and off
  • Promoting equality and respect – e.g. tackling harmful gender norms
  • Attention to ‘pockets of risk’ e.g. break-up period