Parents, kids and internet filters


Ofcom recently published another blockbuster.  Internet safety measures – strategies of parental protection for children online is stuffed with useful information almost all of which failed to grab the attention of the mass media. Sometimes where it did it was misrepresented. Have a look at this headline from the BBC.

Children can turn off net filters, report finds

Girls on a laptop
Children are often more net-savvy than their parents


Filters put in place by parents to stop children viewing inappropriate content are easily bypassed by the youngsters themselves, according to a report from regulator Ofcom.

As a news organization the BBC must know many people read the headline and pass swiftly on. For that reason care should be taken not to deploy a masthead which gives an incorrect impression. In this particular instance, therefore, although the bald facts do appear in the main body of the text what was missed is that only 18% of the oldest group of children looked at in the study – 12-15 year olds – said  they could bypass the filters, but worse still (see para 5.37 of the substantive document) only 6%  of this minority group indicated they had actually done so in the past year.

Another headline might have been

Great majority of older children cannot turn off net filters, report finds, and even those that can hardly ever do

Or something like that. We don’t have data on the ability of 3-4 and 5-7 year olds to turn off filters. I doubt Ofcom bothered to ask as the idea is so ridiculous but if you lumped together all children under the age of 15 the banner could have read

Almost no children know how to turn off net filters, report finds

We need a more nuanced approach. We really shouldn’t put three year olds and fifteen year olds in the same bucket.

Don’t get me wrong. I fully understand that filters are far from perfect. They need to get better in several different ways and their mass deployment should force that to happen. Certainly I can see no scenario where filters improve through not being used.  But will we ever reach a point where some super-smart kid cannot find a way around this or that obstacle? I doubt it. Is that a reason to give up now and deny everybody the protection filters can afford? No.

Other important findings

I will return to the Ofcom report more fully in a later blog but there is one other bit I think is worth mentioning immediately. The report lists the main reasons parents choose not to use filters. No surprises.

  •  The most significant reasons for non take-up of parental controls are a combination of parents trusting children to be responsible online and supervising the child. The balance between these factors is strongly influenced by the age of the child. •
  • A lack of awareness and understanding of parental controls also appears to be a key reason for non-take up. There is a perception, particularly amongst parents with lower levels of confidence about technology, that the process of selecting and installing parental controls was complex and time-consuming.
  • The potential value of parental controls does not appear to be front-of-mind on a daily basis for some parents and their focus was more around their children’s day-to-day internet use (e.g. children spending too much time online) rather than around the risks which few parents had any direct experience of (e.g. of physical and psychological harm related to exposure). 
  • In addition, even amongst those who had installed parental controls, many had not given them much further thought and protections may have become outdated as a result of this lack of continuing engagement. 
  • Overall, parental controls were viewed as a supplement to, rather than replacement for, hands-on parenting. Supervision and other forms of parental mediation were felt still to be needed to manage all of the day-to-day issues their children faced, including risks emanating from children’s internet usage. 

Thus we can see why default on filters will help some families but probably they will not be needed or wanted in all of them. However, note in particular the fourth bullet point. That hasn’t emerged strongly in the public debate up to now.

It says even in situations where default on filters had not been available and families had therefore gone to the trouble of finding and installing them anyway, their value and efficacy was reduced because of a lack of continuing engagement on the part of the parents.

I think this is key. In which ever way filtering or safety software has landed on a machine risks can arise, its value can diminish, because of a combination of the pressures of everyday family life, a lack of awareness of how the programme works and a failure to understand why it is important to stay involved with your child’s online world while recognising that as they get older progressively you need to loosen the reins.  It has nothing whatsoever to do with default on or default off.

Default on filters linked to automatic updates helps address at least part of the complexity but parental education remains top of the list. The UK’s ISPs need to pull their fingers out and get on with it.