Adam’s manipulative behaviour towards the women he likes in the Love Island villa prompted charity Women’s Aid to issue a statement asking viewers to join love interest Rosie in speaking out against unhealthy behaviours in relationships – especially “gaslighting”, a form of emotional abuse that makes someone question their own feelings, memories and version of reality.
Emotional partner abuse is a common experience among young people. Research shows that nearly three quarters of teenage girls, and half of teenage boys, have reported some form of emotional partner abuse. But many still won’t recognise the early warning signs, and only 33% of teenagers who are involved in an abusive relationship talk to someone about it.
Although the UK’s legal definition of domestic violence and abuse includes psychological abuse and controlling and coercive behaviour, research by child protection charity NSPCC has shown that teenagers often don’t understand what emotional abuse is, and how controlling behaviours – such as checking someone’s phone, telling them what to wear or gaslighting – can be early warning signs of abusive behaviour.
Love Island is watched by over 3m viewers and most are young women aged 16 to 34, though a younger teenage demographic also watch. Many of these younger viewers may be learning about what healthy relationships are like, and entering their first romantic relationship.
If young people are getting their information about relationships from programmes such as Love Island – with emotional abuse as entertainment – they will inevitably have trouble recognising the early warning signs of abuse, as they might think that this type of relationship is normal. There is a clear need to help young people recognise abuse in relationships, and fight back against it.
Let’s teach about sex
In the past, government strategies to promote healthy relationships – including Disrespect Nobody and This is Abuse – have targeted 13 to 18-year-olds with extensive media campaigns. These strategies recognised the power of TV, celebrities and social media to influence young peoples views of relationships. For example, This is Abuse partnered with the Channel 4 teen soap Hollyoaks in 2013.
One in four teenagers admit they are more influenced by celebrities than people they know. This is why there needs to be positive role models of healthy relationships in the media. But evidence shows that domestic abuse can also be prevented through early, age appropriate education, which promotes relationships based on equality and respect.
Currently relationship and sex education is not compulsory. But from September 2019, it will be a statutory requirement in all schools. In order to be effective, high quality relationship and sex education needs to start early, in order to influence attitudes and behaviours before they are entrenched in adulthood. It needs to be about rights and equity, and delivered by either well-trained teachers, or external professionals.
At Liverpool John Moores University, we are working with arts charity Tender to prevent domestic abuse by using art and drama in 24 schools across Greater Merseyside. Using age and ability appropriate workshops, which focus on identifying early warning signs in unhealthy relationships, young people are encouraged to question past relationship behaviours and challenge their current norm.
The PEACH study (Preventing Domestic Abuse for Children) has proven that drama is a particularly effective way of teaching pupils how to recognise the early warning signs of abusive relationships. One female pupil, aged 14, said:
I used to think it as OK for my boyfriend to log into my Facebook account but I know now its not.
People’s understanding of what is a healthy and unhealthy relationship comes from many sources, including family, friends, peers, the media and school. We expect that society will offer models of healthy relationships and portray positive intimate partner relationships. But that is not always the case, as Love Island shows.
Rosie called out Adam’s behaviour, and it’s time we enable everyone to do the same. Schools have a responsibility to provide young people with the skills and information to recognise the signs of unhealthy relationships, and speak out against abuse.