In a playground in south Wales this past summer term, Year Four pupils have been playing a new game: pairing each other up and commenting on the physical appearance of their classmates. Sound familiar? What looked a lot like copycat behaviour based on ITV2′s reality dating show Love Island was so common the school’s headteacher Aled Rees sent a letter to parents.
In it, he suggested the pupils, some as young as eight, were not “mature enough” to watch the programme, and asked parents whether its “language and sexual nature is something you wish your children to see, use and emulate”.
You only need to visit Twitter (or any other social platform) during the 60-minute show to see how many people – of all ages – are engaged with the daily and nightly goings on of a group of strangers in swimwear who must couple up with each other for their chance to win a share of £50,000.
Now in its fifth series, Love Island gives formerly unknown contestants a celebrity profile and social media following to match, making them highly visible to young people. This at the same time as featuring candid adult conversations about sex, relationships, lap dances and more. And showing those things, too, during overnight stays in ‘The Hideaway’ and bi-weekly challenges with names like Sliding Into The DMs, Raunchy Races, Suck and Blow, and Doggy Style.
The show is highly sexualised by its nature but, for a second year in a row, Love Island’s emotional dynamics have also been criticised by domestic abuse charities such as Women’s Aid, which has warned viewers about the impact of “controlling behaviour” between some contestants.
Over the summer, Ofcom has received complaints from viewers about Joe Garratt’s treatment of Lucie Donlan, Michael Griffiths’ comments to Amber Gill, and Maura Higgins’ advances on Tommy Fury – later cleared. Producers insist they monitor behaviour closely, following criticism about the mental health of contestants both during the show and after the cameras stop rolling – and 2019 contestant Amy Hart has praised the aftercare she received.
But Love Island has also come under scrutiny for excluding LGBTQ relationships from its format and for a lack of body positivity and diversity – as it features only a small segment of male and female body types on screen.
[Read More: Love Island: How Does The Show Affect Male Body Image?]
Although it airs after 9pm, and features warnings about explicit content, young fans are watching it in their masses live, on catch-up and via clips and memes online. And sex educators are also tuning in, they tell HuffPost UK – because they know it will come up in the classroom and playground.
In fact, sex advice service, Sexplain is so aware of the numbers of children watching, it has started running Love Island workshops in schools in 2019 to help break down issues presented in the show, including body image, gender and sexuality. The sessions include pupils designing a Love Island 2.0 – as if they were producers – and building collages of what they would keep and change in the show. Meanwhile BBC Bitesize, the study support service for students, has produced a mini series with ex-contestants with one of its videos viewed nearly 40,000 times.
It’s not only educators concerned for younger viewers – parents are too. Entire forums on Netmums are dedicated to parents debating at what age kids should be allowed to watch the show, with the general consensus being that even 13 is too young. One parent summed up their worries: “Have you seen that programme? They give blow jobs on television!”
So, why are children watching it? Milly Evans, 19-year-old founder of I Support Sex Education, a website raising the profile of sex ed around the world, says young people are increasingly looking to popular culture – films, TV, the internet – for information about love and sex and that we should not be surprised.
“For them, Love Island offers viewers an ‘authentic’ look into relationships, friendships and drama. It’s addictive. It’s also the kind of entertainment many families will sit down to watch in the evening. It’s easy to get immersed in it.”
“Current sex ed is not good enough – it’s too little, too late and too biological.”
In this context, sex educator and youth worker Alice Hoyle says Love Island could be a valuable tool – but only if used under the supervision of an adult. “It can be a good starting point to talk without your child running away.” Especially where negative behaviours are concerned, she adds. “It’s useful for programmes and soaps to shine a spotlight on those. Fundamentally if they hear it in the playground, they need to know how to address those questions.”
Hoyle agrees with Aled Rees that the show is not appropriate for primary-age kids. But without the support of parents, can older children be left to their own devices to watch Love Island? Is it a valuable source of information or does it risk young people modelling their own behaviour on what they see on screen?
For Dolly Padalia, director at Sexplain, a major concern is that young people are turning to the show for information in lieu of formalised sex education. “A large part of why they go to Love Island is the inconsistency of sex education in our country. Depending on the school you go to or the area you live in, you might not have it. And when you do have it it can be really poor – awkward, using slut-shaming videos or being judgemental and cringe,” she says.
“Kids tell us they just want the information presented straight – honest, open, non-judgmental. They say current sex ed isn’t candid enough. So of course they’re going to take information from Love Island because they’re not being given another educational safe space to learn and ask questions.”
Evans says that having only finished secondary school in 2018, she knows first hand how inadequate sex ed can be. “It’s worrying that I never had a lesson in school about how to put on a condom,” she says. And Hoyle agrees: “Current sex ed is not good enough – it’s too little, too late and too biological.”
From September 2020 a new sex ed curriculum is being rolled out in schools across England and Wales. It will replace the current curriculum, which has been taught since 2000 and was subject to Section 28, preventing educators from including LGBTQ issues. It was also non-mandatory.
Now all schools will have to teach the curriculum, which should address the postcode lottery mentioned by Padalia – though parents will still have the right to withdraw their own children from classes.
Not only that, says Hoyle, but there are some subjects still being left out of the new curriculum. “It mentions all the scary words but none of the positive parts of sex – pleasure, sex positivity or masturbation.”
Unlike Love Island, fans argue (though the show does ban contestants from masturbating). This series, contestant Maura Higgins, 28, has become a breakout star, in part due to her candid references to sex, “fanny flutters” and her “throbbing” vagina”, but also for calling out male contestants when she overheard them wondering if she was “all talk” before a date.
“Get Maura in schools now. Young girls need to learn her ways immediately.”
Journalist and broadcaster Harriet Minter, who dissects the show weekly on her unofficial Love Island podcast, Undercover Lover – supports positive female role models. “Get Maura in schools now,” she tweeted in June. “Young girls need to learn her ways immediately.” A month later, sex and relationships counsellor Lucy Beresford echoed the view, also on Twitter: “Can we be clear: a woman like Maura, who loves sex, and loves to talk about sex, is not there to be slut-shamed. It’s time we celebrated people comfortable with their own desires.”
Ahead of Monday’s grand final, ITV has announced that Love Island will be expanding to two series a year. Chief executive Carolyn McCall appeared on BBC’s Today programme this week to explain a move that some have criticised, and spoke about its huge popularity among the target 16-34-year-old age bracket, which makes it so lucrative with advertisers and sponsorships.
“Love Island is fantastic, because everyone talks about it, but also because it does draw in a very young audience,” said McCall. “Actually if you watch it, it is entertaining, but it is also about the ups and downs of relationships.”
Asked about contestants being “horrible” to each other, McCall responded: “They are also very kind and very supportive and they are discussing issues that a lot of people value because they happen in modern day relationships.”
[Read More: Meet A Generation That’s Grown Up With Internet Porn]
So, where does this leave impressionable younger viewers? “The fact is, without comprehensive sex ed, young people and especially children have nowhere to unpack what they see on Love Island – it’s unlikely they’ll be searching out articles or commentary on the negative behaviours,” says Milly Evans.
“Sex ed just doesn’t exist or isn’t good enough for many young people. They’re having to turn to the internet and popular culture to figure out relationships and navigating sex. We can blame porn for young people learning negative relationship and sex ideals, but I think popular culture has a big role to play too.”
And without the framework to contextualise what they are seeing on TV, Evans worries there is nothing to stop young children from mimicking its worst behaviours. “If it happened on Love Island, why can’t it happen at school? No one answers that question for children,” she says.
• This article was amended on August 17 2020. A previous version referred to Sexplain as a charity.