Over a third of teenage boys admit to sending or receiving racist or homophobic content online


A survey of 20,000 schoolchildren aged 11-18 by HMC and Digital Awareness UK in September 2018 has revealed for the first time the number of teenagers sharing offensive content (or memes) in accounts hidden from adult view.

The poll, of state and independent school pupils, is published on the day HMC and Digital Awareness UK launch a free video and school resources to promote healthy online living.  It reveals that:

  • 36% of boys have sent or received racist or homophobic memes (compared with 17% of girls)
  • 73% of boys have seen an offensive meme on private group chats (compared with 70% of girls)
  • Of those, 40% of boys see offensive memes every day (compared with 16% of girls)

This came after 40% of the same poll sample reported having more than one account online. 57% of them said they have accounts that adults don’t know about.

Other findings show that:

Type of offensive content viewed – (tick all the boxes)

  • Racist 88%
  • Sexist 80%
  • Homophobic 74%
  • Half are checking their phones after bed, with a quarter of those using their phone for over an hour.
  • 77% said their parents aren’t aware that their children check their phones after bed
  • But most of the teenagers polled feel the same or more positive about social media than they did last year

The poll results are released to coincide with the launch of HMC/DAUK’s Tech Control 2018 campaign, which combines a video aimed at teenagers and free lesson plans for schools. The five-minute video features the stories of three teenagers who have made technology work for them in exciting and successful ways after turning away from over-use. Access the Video and Lesson Plans here.


Emma Robertson, co-founder of Digital Awareness UK said:

Offensive memes are the source of much upset and anxiety amongst the young people we work with. They are also contributing to the normalisation of racism, sexism and homophobia.

Memes can be entertaining, comical and creative, but when they poke fun at serious issues such as slavery, rape and marginalised communities you’ve crossed the line.”


Mike Buchanan, Executive Director of HMC and former head of Ashford School said:

“Social media is essentially a channel where teenagers act out their lives. Some teenage behaviour is positive, such as telling jokes, sharing fun images and making friends and other behaviour is not, such as sharing offensive material.

“Teenagers, especially boys, have always indulged in risky behaviour but it is disturbing that so many are receiving and sending racist and homophobic material. Teachers and parents need to work together to make sure young people understand about good relationships, respect, and sensitivity to others’ feelings.

“Teenagers far outpace adults in their knowledge of social media, but they still need help to regulate their behaviour. So we have created new schools resources to help young people take control of their own use of social media and are making them available to all schools free of charge.”


Geoff Barton, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said:

"Social media and online technology have many positive benefits, but when overused they are distracting and sometimes destructive. It is vital that young people are empowered to navigate these rapidly developing technologies safely, and we thoroughly endorse the resources developed by HMC. We will be disseminating these resources to our 19,000 members through our networks."


Sam Price, Chair of HMC’s Wellbeing Working Group and Head of Benenden School, said:

'We need to keep working with our teens to understand the risks of the online world. They need to know that whilst they can run rings round adults - parents and teachers - online, they do still make mistakes and might place themselves in vulnerable positions.  Whilst recognising their online world, schools like ours are working hard to try to close the knowledge gap between adults and children when it comes to social media.

'At Benenden, we have a team of pupils called Digital Champions who are raising awareness among pupils of good online habits. They have received safeguarding training, communicate with groups of girls new to the school in how to stay safe online, and they brief the senior Management Team of new online trends.  I'm certainly not claiming that we have all the answers but, like our peer schools, we are working hard to manage the challenges of new online behaviours such as those that this new poll has revealed.'


Editor’s notes

For media enquiries please contact Sue Bishop, HMC Director of External Relations (07787 294808) or at [email protected] or Sheila Thompson (07958 307637) or at [email protected]

A meme is an image, video or piece of text that is copied and spread rapidly by Internet users, often with slight variations

This poll is part of the Tech Control campaign being run by HMC and DAUK, designed to help young people take control of their own use of technology. The Tech Control 2018 video and lesson plans are available on the HMC website, here.

Tech Control 2017: https://www.hmc.org.uk/tech-control-lesson-plans-hmc-digital-awareness-uk/

Digital Awareness UK: https://www.digitalawarenessuk.com/

HMC (the Headmasters' & Headmistresses' Conference) is a professional association of heads of the world's leading independent schools. HMC has 292 members in the British Isles educating more than 200,000 children, and a further 56 international members. Our members lead schools that are distinguished by their excellence in pastoral care, co-curricular provision and classroom teaching. Members of HMC have met annually in conference since the first meeting in 1869. HMC today is a thriving, pro-active Association of leading figures in school education. See www.hmc.org.uk.

Digital Awareness UK is an award-winning digital wellbeing agency.