Sometimes it’s hard to predict what will kick off a political row. I would not have guessed that a national Health & Wellbeing Census of young people would have done the trick. Indeed, after nearly two years of pandemic, it seems like a particularly good time to touch base with the nation’s young people and find out how they are.
The political and media row revolves around a new national survey of young people to provide local evidence on a range of health and wellbeing measures, to identify and implement service improvements and monitor progress.
This is not a novel approach. In Glasgow, for example, there is an existing Glasgow City Schools Health & Wellbeing Survey, first commissioned by NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde in 2006/7 to establish a baseline of health and wellbeing data which has been used to determine local priorities, plan services, and track progress in the city. Four reports have been produced.
The questions in the new national census have largely been derived from an existing set of similar surveys from a range of sources, which have already been tested and ethically approved.
The questions young people are asked cover areas such as school and learning, physical activity, physical and mental health, relationships, caring responsibilities, online experience, self perception and so on. Older pupils are also asked about their experience of drinking, smoking, taking drugs and sexual experiences. It is the questions about sexual experience that have caused controversy.
Participation in the census is entirely voluntary.
Individual local authorities can decide whether to participate. Some councils have decided that this won’t be of benefit to them. Others may decide not to include certain questions. That’s entirely their decision.
Parents who do not wish their children to take part in the census can refuse their consent. And individual pupils who do participate can decide which questions they want to answer. In other words, there is no compulsory element to any of this.
Concerns have been raised about the confidentiality of the survey by some who suggest it may be possible to identify young people by the candidate number they are asked to enter.
The census is confidential, and the local authority collecting responses will not reveal any information enabling the identification of individual young people in its reports. The data that is collected will be kept separately from information which could directly identify individuals and is used for research and statistical purposes only. This is similar to the way the national household census questionnaire works.
But my personal view is that there can’t be a blanket assurance of complete confidentiality.
It’s very unlikely but it is possible that the combined responses to a survey may indicate that a young person is in a dangerous situation. Were that to happen, I would want that young person to be offered the help they need. I think evidence of a young person at risk of serious harm should always be acted upon. But this would only become an issue in very exceptional circumstances.
I appreciate that this makes the discussion more complex, but I believe most people understand that everything in life is not always black and white. Complexity is part of many situations that we manage in our day to day lives. There are exceptions to every rule. That is something that some politicians and voices in the media should probably remember a bit more often.
Concerns about confidentiality also underpin the comments of the Children’s Commissioner about the census.
He suggested that young people should be advised if there could be circumstances where they could be identified. He also suggested that young people should have their rights clearly communicated to them in advance, including the information that their participation is not compulsory.
I completely agree with him on these points but, to my knowledge, what he is asking for is already included in the process of conducting the census.
There is a Q&A on the census, along with details on confidentiality and data protection here for those interested: Health and Wellbeing Census – gov.scot (www.gov.scot)
Concerns about the sexual content of the survey from some parents, based on the highly coloured information they have read in the media, are entirely understandable. But the issue has also been weaponised by some populist political voices seeking to exploit parents’ fears.
I do find it interesting that the focus is on questions about sex but there doesn’t seem to be the same interest in questions about drinking, smoking or taking drugs. I am not sure what the material difference is, given these activities are also prohibited by law for under age young people.
I fully sympathise with parents worried about the sexualised environment in which their children are maturing to adulthood. Children and young people have probably never been more exposed to explicit sexual content than they are today.
The British Board of Film Classification commissioned research in 2019 which found a worrying level of exposure to pornography. https://www.bbfc.co.uk/about-us/news/children-see-pornography-as-young-as-seven-new-report-finds
Children as young as 7 had stumbled across pornography online. More than half of 11-13 year olds said that they had seen pornography, rising to 66% of 14-15 year olds. And, of course, young people talk with their friends about what they have seen.
Researchers found that 75% of parents believed that their children had not seen any pornography. However, 53% of those same children reported that, in fact, they had viewed pornography. This reinforces the scale of exposure.
Children are naturally curious about sex, but the lessons they learn from watching pornography can be very harmful. Pornography often portrays men as gaining satisfaction from dominating and sometimes abusing women. Most people would agree that’s not how children and young people should see sexual relationships being portrayed.
Harmful sexual behaviour by children and young people is a growing problem. Research suggests that at least around one third of all harmful sexual behaviour towards children and young people is committed by other children and young people.
In cyber enabled sexual crimes, three quarters of victims in Scotland were under 16 in 2016-17, with an average age of 14. In a quarter of cases both the victim and perpetrator were under 16. https://www.gov.scot/publications/expert-group-preventing-sexual-offending-involving-children-young-people-prevention-responses-harmful-sexual-behaviour-children-young-people/pages/3/
Being able to talk frankly about sex is important if we are to create a safer environment for these young people, young women in particular.
A few days ago I tweeted “Imagine you are a 15 year old girl. Your boyfriend is trying to talk you into anal sex. You’re really not sure. He might not be sure either but his mates have dared him. You need a bit of help here, right? Now imagine you live in a country where adults refuse to talk about sex.”
The scenario outlined in my tweet reflects a study from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine looking at the expectations, attitudes and experiences of anal intercourse between opposite-sex teenagers in England. https://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/4/8/e004996.abstract
The study found an oppressive environment where some young men competed with each other to have anal sex with young women, even if (and possibly because) they expected them to find it painful. Young women reported that they were repeatedly asked for anal sex by their male partners. Their accounts raised the possibility of coercion for young women, who were sometimes penetrated anally without their explicit consent.
I don’t know whether there is a comparable issue in Scotland, and I completely understand that people may find it distressing to think about teenagers who may be in this situation. But ignoring something doesn’t make it go away. We should be able to discuss issues like this openly to ensure that young people get the advice and support that meets their needs.
We would all hope that my imaginary teenage girl has parents or carers who are able to guide and support her. But that’s not always the case. And sometimes parents might want a bit of external support with discussions that they may find quite challenging themselves.
It’s vital that local authorities have the right resources in place to help all young people, including those who are LGBT+, develop positive and healthy attitudes towards relationships and sex, along with a full understanding of the importance of consent.
And the more data that is available to help target appropriate interventions and support to assist young people’s health and wellbeing, the more effective they will be.
Having said all this, it is important not to view this census entirely through the prism of sex. It is not a “sex survey”. It’s a very comprehensive survey looking at multiple aspects of young people’s health and wellbeing, including multiple questions about their relationships, as well as sexual experiences.
There are separate government workstreams and bodies working to tackle gender based violence and harmful sexual behaviours among young people. That is not what this Health and Wellbeing Survey is about, but I do think it would be a missed opportunity if young people were not asked about their experiences.
Parents who object can, as already set out, withdraw their children from the survey. Nobody will be compelled to take part but those who do could provide us with valuable information not only to plan Children’s Services but to help local authorities do more to keep them and their peers safe,
By Mhairi Hunter