Are Internet Filters Really Keeping Children Safe?

Should we be spending money on internet filters or just plain old education?
21 March 2017

Interview with 

Victoria Nash, University of Oxford


Internet filters that screen what can be accessed over the web are becoming commonplace in people’s homes. They block access to online content that might be unsuitable, like pages that contain blacklisted keywords, as well as games and videos. The purpose is to protect children from being exposed to inappropriate material. But now a new study suggests that, in fact, these filters are not very effective, they may also lull us into a false sense of security and could even be having a negative effect because of blocking or ‘overblocking’ of useful content. Tom Crawford spoke to Oxford University’s Victoria Nash…

Victoria - Our most recent study takes some data from some “Ofcom” surveys, that the communications regulator in the UK. And we carried out some analysis on that data to see whether or not there was any connection between parents that have household filters installed and the likelihood that their children, in this case 12-15 year olds, would have experienced any negative experiences online.

Slightly contrary to my expectations, unfortunately, we didn’t find strong evidence that installing these household level filters in the home provided effective protection in stopping children from having nasty experiences online.

Tom - How did you assess how effective these filters were with this data?

Victoria - The data that were using was a survey data set, which was rather nice because a lot of the time we only actually interview say children, if we’re interested in children’s responses. In this case there were interviews carried out both with the 12-15 year olds and their parents.

The data set asked the parents whether or not there were filters installed in the household and, amongst other things, it asked the children whether or not they’d experienced anywhere between one and seven different types of what we call “adverse experiences online.” What it means is just nasty, unpleasant things. The analysis that we carried out - I won’t go into the statistics, thankfully. But, effectively, it was looking to see if there was any correlation between those two factors, and what we found was that for those that had filters at home they were no less likely of experiencing things online than those that didn’t.

Tom - How common was it for a child to experience something aversive or negative on line?

Victoria - The most common experience that they’d had on line, which was experienced by about 8% of people, was being contacted by somebody they didn’t know who wanted to be their friend. Interestingly, much more common for girls than for boys.

I suppose that’s one to be a little bit careful about because certainly I know a lot of parents and carers might think that that’s alarming; it’s often presented as such in policy discussions. But certainly from a teens perspective that could also mean they’re just being contacted by somebody with their interests, in their age group who they want to talk to.

Other things that were slightly less common were seeing sexual content, or being cheated out of money, or feel under pressure to share information.

Tom - The example you gave about meeting strangers online, I would imagine that’s very difficult for a filter to block, because, as you said it could be positive, you could make friends online right? But then filtering out sexually explicit images, or things about drugs or something that, I would guess, would be much easier to block out with a filter and, as you said, you would definitely expect with a filter present that kind of material would be less available than when the filter wasn’t there?

Victoria - That’s right. Obviously we can’t be sure about what the explanations for that might be. Once suggestion certainly is that these days so much of children’s internet use is actually outside the home that, obviously, a filter only controls a portion of their experience. It’s also the case that so much these days can be exchange, for example, on a peer to peer basis. It’s essentially quite straightforward for this material to be exchanged and seen.

Tom - I guess, of course, the kids could be lying; they could be bypassing these filters?

Victoria - Absolutely. Again, we did want to check this out because this is concern often raised that the more technically able children will simply just be able to work around filters and this will expose them to more risk. Luckily for us this was again a question that was asked in the Ofcom survey.

Again we had to be a bit careful about the result because, as you can imagine, some children would not be happy saying they had tried to circumvent filters. But certainly on the basis of findings in that survey, there seems to be no difference between those that say they circumvented the filters and those, again, that didn’t.

Tom - So what would be the way forward?

Victoria - Personally, I am not saying we shouldn’t use filters. I recognise that certainly for parents, they represent one useful tool that they would like to have in their repertoire but I think, for me, it would suggest that we should be doing an awful lot more to educate children, to educate parents. This is a very difficult message to get across, for example, to parents saying yes, you should let your children use the internet and here’s how to help them not see things that you might find worrying or how to deal with it, but I think we need to focus more on that.

I also think that there’s an awful lot more to be done around what we might term “building resilience,” so ensuring that if children do encounter risky material or experiences online, that they know how to get away from it, or how to ensure that the risk is not significant.


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