Keeping children safe on the Internet is a challenge many parents struggle to negotiate as they find themselves lost amongst horror stories of online predators, cyberbullying, inappropriate social behaviour and adult or graphic content being too easily accessible for children. To keep kids safe many families choose what looks like the best option without fully understanding the limitations of the product [1[.
Often parents have believed that the best way to protect their children from inappropriate websites was a system of Internet filtering, which is essentially blanket censorship of content using control software. This form of idealistic censorship has potentially negative consequences and there is considerable debate about how Internet filtering hurts kids, even though harm is in contrast to the goal . There are issues surrounding the shortcomings of blanket content blocking with regard to over-blocking, under blocking, and the additional exclusion this puts on marginalised groups such as the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community and the economically disadvantaged.
The Irony Of Internet Protection Controls
This censorship-based approach to Internet protection gives a false sense of security and, ironically, is easy to circumvent. These controls can be quickly manipulated by almost anyone, rendering them ineffective. You may think your children are protected online when in fact they have free reign over the entire Internet. In an ironic twist, Internet filters fail to block websites that instruct people on how to turn them off. With a quick Google search, your child can have all the information needed to switch off or adjust the Internet filters that have been put in place .
Our world is dynamic, evolving, fast-paced and technologically reliant and we need online safety options that are as sophisticated as we are. Children need to learn, develop and research, so there is a strong argument against rigid content controls that often unintentionally over-block and limit learning opportunities. Content blocking can be detrimental, oppressive and often incentivises children to find ways to circumvent these sort of parental controls, rendering them useless.
Recommendations of Safety Advocates
Internet safety advocates at the forefront of debating content blocking versus alternative approaches highlight how blocking can protect children, but increasingly, how it can be harmful. For example, Australian experts, FAIR (Freedom of Access to Information Resources), argue that ‘strong arm filtering’ of Internet content is ineffective and actually raises questions about civil liberties in some circumstances. In fact, since 2010, the following organisations agreed that Australians would be prudent to take a moderate approach to Internet safety :
- Australian Library and Information Association
- Inspire Foundation
- Internet Industry Association
- Internet Society of Australia
- System Administrators Guild of Australia
- Australian Council of State School Organisations
The recommendations of these groups were based on a combination of education and control. In other words, they almost universally recommend some level of monitoring as opposed to outright blocking, plus they encouraged communication and open dialogue with children regarding online safety. By helping children to understand both good and bad choices online and by highlighting potential consequences, they are given responsibility instead of rigidity. Ideally, this education is then supported by enforced policing in the wider community to address and curb negative behaviours such as image-based abuse and cyberbullying .
The Big Problem With Internet Filtering
The National Coalition Against Censorship (USA) also points out problematic factors inherent with Internet filtering. The most common motivations parents have for blocking content are:
- To prevent their children from viewing adult content
- To ensure children aren’t able to access dangerous or age-inappropriate social media sites
- To exclude graphic violence
However, if you break down each of these concerns one by one, the grey areas become quickly apparent and the issues with over-blocking present themselves. For example, blanket filtering of adult content and social media risks also blocking access to legitimate content such as reproductive health and wellbeing websites, educational content on sexuality, and social media sites with potential academic value. It quickly becomes apparent that over-blocking limits young people’s access to important information.
The Collateral Damage Of Filtering And Blocking Online Content
Blocking Internet content can create a false sense of security for parents. Many content control products are sold using persuasive advertising that implies that once installed, the protection is absolute and children are completely protected. This is not usually the case. Not only are these blocking tools easy to circumvent, they do not necessarily protect your children as much or as often as parents may think. For example, they will not be protected when they are on another person’s device. In addition, these controls may say that your child spent a certain amount of time on a website like YouTube but will probably not be able to tell you what they were viewing. These products are rarely if ever, a one-step solution for all online safety issues surrounding children. This is where monitoring, parental alerts and a focus on education clearly presents itself as the superior approach.
Internet filtering also has a discriminatory aspect as it can and often does isolate vulnerable groups such as the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community and those with limited resources. Children, teens and adults struggling with identity are denied support from online networks due to overzealous controls. This is an already vulnerable community of people with marginalised real-world support, therefore, denying information and a sense of belonging in an online capacity can lead to unfortunate collateral damage. In the United States, this issue was considered a breach of civil liberties and the ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union) began a powerful campaign with the catchphrases ‘Don’t Block Me’ and ‘Don’t Filter Me’, which led to changes in filtering and blocking in schools across America .
Similarly, those who do not have the resources to own a computer or pay for connectivity and need to use public computers such as in libraries or community centres are immediately disadvantaged by Internet limitations.
Ultimately the only filter that works is the one developed by the child over time with their family and which they take with them whenever they are online. Parents need to provide tools and strategies to keep their children safe including monitoring and ongoing conversations about what is appropriate content for them to access to enhance their education and socialisation.