Study: Internet Filters Not Effective in Preventing Teens From Seeing Sexual Material

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A new study has revealed that internet filters, designed to protect young people from seeing sexually explicit material, don't really work.

Researchers Andrew K. Przybylski and Victoria Nash from the Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford looked at data provided by 9,352 male and 9,357 female subjects, ranging in age from 11 to 16 years, from the European Union and the U.K. They also analyzed data from an equal number of caregivers. Their analyses of the data "delivered conclusive evidence that filters were not effective for protecting young people from online sexual material."

Nearly 50 percent of the subjects involved in the U.K. study and almost a quarter of those from the E.U. reported having some kind of internet filter. And yet, the study revealed that they were still able to see approximately the same amount of explicit material — nudity, private parts, people having sex — as those subjects who surfed online without filters.

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Researchers were also surprised to find that "households reporting using filters were more, not less, likely to have an adolescent who reported having seen violent pornography in the past 6 months."

Participants were more likely to report seeing images or videos of nudity than of violent porn.

The researchers also sought to "calculate the number of households which would have to be filtered to prevent one young person, who would otherwise see sexual material online, from encountering it over a 12-month period." 

"Depending on the form of content, results indicated that between 17 and 77 households would need to be filtered to prevent a young adolescent from encountering online sexual material."

The co-authors of the study said that they hope their findings will lead people to reconsider the effectiveness of a particular form of technology with relation to its specific goal before it is used widely.

They noted that internet filters can be "expensive to develop and maintain" and they may even "underblock" at times because more ways to share content are being rolled out constantly.

"The struggle to shape the experiences young people have online is now part of modern parenthood," they stated. "This study was conducted to address the value of industry, policy, and professional advice concerning the appropriate role of Internet filtering in this struggle. Our preliminary findings suggested that filters might have small protective effects, but evidence derived from a more stringent and robust empirical approach indicated that they are entirely ineffective."

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