The publication of the proposed changes to the junior cycle curriculum caused considerable controversy, primarily due to the inclusion of pornography as a topic of discussion. If you were to believe some of the negative comments on social media, you would think that future SPHE (social, personal and health education) courses will be a place to discuss pornography.
The reality is very different. After reading the document, I can confirm that the word “pornography” is mentioned once, in an effort to help young people understand its potentially harmful effect on relationships, intimacy and consent.
I was impressed with the overall proposal as it addresses many fundamental issues regarding the mental health and well-being of young people. The focus is on decision-making and the importance of young people creating their own value systems. It also strikes a good balance between looking at external factors that can negatively impact mental health, such as social media and peer pressure, and the need to develop internal resources to become resilient, authentic and loyal. to themselves.
The program aims to “nurture the student’s self-awareness, positive self-esteem and develop knowledge, understanding, skills, dispositions and values that will help them create and maintain respectful and respectful relationships. caring and lead a healthy and fulfilling life”. These are pretty lofty expectations from a curriculum document, but it’s important to aim high.
I believe that the success of this proposed program will be determined by how it is embraced by teachers, received by students, and delivered by schools. Additionally, the Department of Education needs to put resources in place to ensure it is as effective as possible. If SPHE and RSE classes are seen as “schedule fillers” or forced upon teachers, or if teachers are expected to deliver this new curriculum with little means, it will inevitably fail.
Teachers are already overwhelmed when it comes to maintaining the mental health of their students. Additionally, the lack of a decent primary care mental health service means that schools are unfairly asked to take over. I have long advocated for mental health professionals in Irish schools who, alongside other duties, could deliver social and mental health programmes.
For content like this to have an impact or generate meaningful discussion, groups would need to be considerably smaller than current class sizes. I have facilitated psychotherapy groups for years and have found that the ideal number for a group exploring a personal topic is between 8 and 12 teenagers. Although these classes are not group psychotherapy, attempting to generate meaningful discussion and allowing time for everyone to contribute with approximately 30 students present in a 45-60 minute time frame is impractical.
Due to the sensitive nature of this content, a “safe space” must be created, which can also be difficult in a classroom environment. Some students may be dismissive and attempt to undermine the conversation, sabotaging the potential for meaningful contributions from other group members. There may be a situation where a student discloses something personal that may require support or debriefing afterwards. Or, more seriously, a student may share something that may contain some degree of risk that merits monitoring and that facility may not be available onsite. I’m not saying teachers aren’t well equipped to manage these dynamics within their subjects, but I do believe the task is qualitatively different with emotive content like this. To facilitate the creation of safe spaces, manage complex group dynamics, or monitor child protection issues, facilitators need to be prepared and trained for these eventualities.
The other stakeholders in the implementation of the new SPHE program are the parents. Some may be alarmed by the choice of topics covered, particularly the module on sexuality. However, we must recognize that most children today live in a very different world than their parents knew. While many aspects of contemporary childhood are much improved, others are more complicated. The evolution of the Internet and interactive smart technologies has changed the landscape of childhood, and our parenting and pedagogical approaches must evolve to respond.
Children learning to use a wearable smart device enter a portal to an outside world over which we have little control. Attempts to reduce or secure the online environment through legislation have largely failed, so we need to educate children rather than risk the damage that may occur while waiting for the industry to put restrictions in place.
Research has repeatedly shown that children are exposed to pornographic material long before they are emotionally or cognitively ready. The problem isn’t that your child will go looking for porn – it’s more about the porn that finds them. It’s not about “whether” your child will come across pornographic material on the Internet, it’s just a matter of when.
With this in mind, we must equip children with the knowledge and skills to negotiate this complex landscape. The online space has no ethical obligation to protect children, which is why parents and educators must intervene. “Media literacy” needs to feature much more prominently in the primary school curriculum in order to properly prepare children to navigate the online world. I understand parents who worry that online education will encourage greater use, but when we teach the “Safe Cross Code” we are not promoting jaywalking or reckless driving – we are preparing children to navigate the safe roads.
The approach to pornography in the new SPHE program is similar. I’m not worried that discussing pornography in class will encourage teens to seek it out online. Instead, hopefully it prepares them to handle it when it hits their radar.
The real question we need to ask ourselves is, does the risk of having that conversation outweigh the risk of not having it? If your child learns about intimacy and relationships through porn websites, they will likely develop a distorted view of intimate relationships. Children do not have the basic life experiences to criticize this pornographic content. The pornography is fantasy-based and plays with themes like consent, violence, and rape. If your child believes that what he sees on these sites represents intimacy, the risk is that he will imitate it in a romantic relationship. The consequences of this misadventure could be catastrophic.
While parents have the primary role in educating their children about the realities of intimate relationships, I believe that confirming this message in school can only help counter the narrative of pornography. As one teacher said, “You don’t learn Spanish verbs by hearing them just once.”
When considering the suitability of pornography as a subject in the SPHE and CSR junior cycle curriculum, I would ask all parents to weigh the risks of omitting it. Just because a conversation is uncomfortable doesn’t mean it should be avoided. We owe it to our children to give them the skills they need to navigate the world rather than make them miss out on essential learning opportunities because we want them to exist in a time long gone.
- Dr. Colman Noctor is a child psychotherapist