The paper, Internet Filtering Technology and Aversive Online Experiences in Adolescents, published in The Journal of Pediatrics, set out to determine how effective internet filters were at insulating users under the age of 18 from "aversive" online experiences — such as pornographic content, contact from strangers, bullying, or sexting.
The findings are unambiguous — the effectiveness of internet filters is "dubious" at best, and resources would be more optimally spent developing teenage resilience to such experiences. Furthermore, the paper suggests technical ability to bypass the filters had no observed effect on the likelihood of such experiences occurring.
"The evidence we present fails to provide support for governmental and industry advice regarding the assumed benefits of filtering for protecting minors online. There are nontrivial economic, informational, and human rights costs associated with filtering to be balanced against any observed benefits. From an economic perspective, the cost of setting up and maintaining household-level filtering programs (even if initially free at the point of use) will most likely be borne eventually by consumers, but our data suggest that demonstrating cost-effectiveness would be difficult," the paper concludes.
To reach their conclusions, researchers analyzed Ofcom data from 1,030 interviews conducted in 515 homes across the UK with teenagers aged 12 to 15. A broadly equal number of boys and girls were included in the sample, and parents were also interviewed about whether they'd used technical tools to control or manage their child's access to online content.
Lead author Dr. Andrew Przybylski from the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) believes that while parents may feel reassured knowing they have internet filters in their home, the findings demonstrate filters do not safeguard against young people seeing things that may frighten or upset them.
"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. Future research needs to look carefully at the long-term value of filters, and whether they protect young people at a wider range of ages," he said.
Moreover, the paper suggests fears of teenage exposure to troubling content online may be overblown — a mere 14 percent of teenagers interviewed had had at least one negative experience online in the past year that they would class as significant, while only eight percent said they had been contacted by someone online whom they did not know who wanted to be their friend.
Only 4 percent said they had encountered another person pretending to be them online, 3 percent reported seeing a video or comment that made them feel scared, and 2 percent had seen content that made them uncomfortable.
Moreover, most major UK internet service providers already automatically add filters to new household connections as a matter of course — although the researchers note these are often costly to develop and maintain, and can accidentally block legitimate content and information about issues important for teenagers, such as alcohol, drugs, sexual relationships, health and identity. These blocks may even have a "disproportionate" effect on vulnerable groups, such as LGBTQ teens.
The findings may suggest the UK government's long-running and high-priced campaign ostensibly aimed at protecting young people online may be somewhat overblown. The initiative includes proposals to oblige porn sites to verify user ages, which has been criticized as an "unworkable" by digital rights advocacy group Open Rights and deemed contrary to free speech by the UN.