Internet filters are basically useless, and potentially dangerous too

Whether at school, in a public library or installed as part of a home broadband service, internet filters are increasingly prevalent, sometimes activated by default by internet service providers. While their aim is usually well-meaning – to protect younger, vulnerable users from accessing content that may be unsuitable to them – a new study suggests they may be doing more harm than good.

Researchers from the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) at Oxford University looked at Ofcom data resulting from 1,030 interviews of 515 teenagers (a broadly equal split of boys and girls) aged 12-15 across the UK while at home. The results, published in the Journal of Pediatrics, indicate that internet filters should be switched off at the earliest opportunity.

An uphill battle

Despite the prevalence of internet filters, 14% of the teenagers interviewed stated that they had had at least one 'significant' negative experience online in the last year, 8% had been contacted by strangers unsolicitedly, close to 4% had seen someone imitating them online, 2% were exposed to sexual content that made them uncomfortable while 3% had been exposed to something that made them feel 'scared'.

In addition, their parents were interviewed, and were shown to be relatively clueless: 66% were not using the content filters, while 24% didn't even know what they were.

As for the content that was being filtered, there was the suggestion that it was returning damaging false positives that could make those looking for helpful information regarding sex, drugs and sexuality more ill-informed and vulnerable.

'A need for more evidence'

"Parents may feel reassured knowing they have internet filters in their home, but our results suggests that such filters do not safeguard against young people seeing things that may frighten or upset them," said Lead author Dr Andrew Przybylski, from the Oxford Internet Institute.

"We strongly believe that there is a need for more evidence to provide guidance on keeping young people safe online so policymakers, parents and those concerned with educating young people can support them in an appropriate way. 

"The data suggests that future research needs to look carefully at the long-term value of filters and see whether they protect young people at a wider range of ages."

The team are now calling for funding to be put into researching better internet safety education methods for teens, rather than censoring a broad swathe of web content, as well as teaching youngsters how to be more resilient in the face of an often-cruel connected world. With the majority of teenagers accessing the internet at least in part through mobile devices alongside home broadband services, a more holistic approach like this seems like a common sense decision – though it's often those very approaches that are sidelined for a grand, headlining scheme.