Pew Study: Teens and Internet Filters

The Pew Internet & American Life Project has released a study finding that families with teens (aged 12 to 17) have dramatically increased their use of internet filters or monitoring software -- up 65 percent -- from 7 million by the end of 2000 to nearly 12 million today. Released on March 17, 2005, the new Pew study, "Protecting Teens Online," claims that 54 percent of internet-using families with teens now use filters.

As American teens are becoming more active internet users, parents are finding it necessary to block or monitor their teens' activities on the web. Although non-technical means of monitoring occur in internet using households, such as implementing household rules and locating the family computer in a public area of the home, the Pew study found that parents of teens are increasingly safety netting their computers by using internet filters and monitoring software.

While consumers, specifically in this case, parents of teens, are using internet filters, the question of blocking is presented. Internet filters are intended to block improper content, and as a result, most filters are designed to function as pop-up blockers.

In the same way, anti-spyware programs, in an attempt to block bad content or viruses, end up blocking much more than that. While internet filters not only spare the viewer the displeasure of unsolicited content and images, they may also be blocking many online marketing ads, and depending on the technology, might possibly render traffic statistics questionable.

Although parents view the internet as a positive resource for their teens, they have concerns about unsolicited content. On a February 7, 2005 "Future Trends" radio interview, interviewer Jon Gordon talked with Patricia Greenfield (professor of psychology and director of the Children's Media Center at UCLA) about unsolicited internet pornography. Greenfield states that the internet poses "new opportunities as well as new risks." Upon visiting a teen chat room to observe, Greenfield immediately "started getting instant messages, many of which were sexual propositions."

The Pew study reports "as of late 2004, 87 percent of all American teens aged 12 to 17 go online, which is about 21 million teens." The report also found that 80 percent of parents with young children (under age 12) go online compared to the 87 percent of parents with teens (aged 12 to 17).

Collectively, American teens and their parents make up the largest online group: "Given that 66 percent of all Americans use the internet, parents and teens are more likely to be internet users than the general population," reports the Pew study.

Filters and monitoring software

The Pew study reports that "the two main filter locations are the client side or server side." The most prevalent forms are as follows:

Client-Side filters function as or in combination with a web browser, and are known as most flexible. The filters are loaded as software -- either by download or purchased software. For children, popular client side filters are Crayon Crawler and MyWeb; for teens, popular examples of client side filters are Net Nanny and CyberPatrol.

Server-Side filters, in the home, operate with or as a third-party server inside the intranet or internet. The filter blocks requests from the user while blocking graphic content and images. Server-side filters works either via the ISP or are web-based.

ISP-based filtering allows the parent to control content depending upon what the parent determines to be acceptable or unacceptable; the parent determines the blocking. A frequent ISP program used is Northern Trail Internet Access.

Web-based filtering operates through the server of the provider company and does not allow the subscriber to control blocking content. The program is offered through subscription for a monthly fee. Surf on the Safe Side is one such company.

Some software, programmed by the parent, prevents the child from giving out vital information on the web: name, address and social security number, et cetera. Other software offers time-limit programs and monitoring options with an inspection section, where parents may view their teen's search activity.

Parents using internet filters

The likelihood of filter use primarily depends upon the parents' familiarity with the internet. According to the Pew report, parents most likely to use filters are those online often or daily, as opposed to those who are not (58 percent to 47 percent). Mothers are more likely than fathers to report using filters (59 percent to 49 percent), and the same holds true of parents under forty years of age (64 percent to 49 percent). Families with younger teens (12 to 14 years) are more likely to use filters than those with older teens (15-17 years): a 60 percent to 49 percent difference. Educated parents with some college or a college degree are more likely to install filters (56 percent to 52 percent); ethnically, African-American parents were ranked most likely to use filters (64 percent) above Hispanic parents (61 percent), and Caucasian parents (52 percent).

Back in 2000, a different Pew study on internet filters had showed that parents with teen girls were more likely to install filters than those with boys. However, the results of the new study show that teen gender is no longer a factor in whether or not parents opt to install filters. Whether a household has a broadband or dial-up connection is also not a major factor in the use of filters.

Putting filters to the test

With the surge of teen internet usage, the influx of unacceptable content and parental concern about online predators, questions about internet filter effectiveness continually arise.

In 1998, an effort to prevent minors from entering unacceptable websites passed COPA (the Federal Child Online Protection Act). COPA says that websites with content "harmful to minors" must contain a verification system to ensure that users, who must be aged 18 and older, would not be permitted to enter without verification of credit card information.

Although defeated last June, there is an additional impending suit by the ACLU and other civil rights groups which disputes COPA as unconstitutional. One of the questions raised in the case is whether or not filters and monitoring software is effective enough to block harmful website and screen content. As a result, several studies evaluating internet filters have followed.

Despite parents' efforts to protect their children and teens by implementing rules and safety nets, "everyone -- parents (81 percent) and teens (79 percent) -- still worries that teens are not careful enough when using the internet," reports the Pew study.

According to Pew, a study on the under- or over-blocking of internet filters released by Consumer Reports in 2001 found that "most filters tested blocked 20 percent of 86 easily located objectionable sites selected." However, by testing the filters against 53 controversial, yet legitimate sites, up to 20 percent of these sites were blocked.

Similarly, the Pew report discusses a December 2002 Kaiser Family Foundation study concerning internet filters blocking health content, finding that "most filters, when set at their least restrictive settings, only blocked about 1.4 percent of health information sites and about 87 percent of all pornographic sites," while set at most restrictive settings, blocked 24 percent of health sites and 91 percent of pornographic sites.

Pew reports that despite the use of filters most teens are finding ways around the system and admit to "doing things online that they wouldn't want their parents to know about," whether the content relates to pornography, or simply information related to sexually transmitted diseases or mental health.

For parents, installing and using internet filters can be difficult, and this is a problem because customized installation is an important factor when it comes to filter performance. As the Pew study points out, "While filters have become more flexible and transparent in recent years, customizing a filter to reflect a family's or a community's values can be time-consuming and often requires more than a modicum of tech savvy."

Additional resources:

Protecting Teens Online 2005: A Pew & American Life Report
Teens Struggle with Accidental Exposure to Internet Pornography: An interview with Patricia Greenfield, director of Children's Digital Media Center at UCLA and professor of psychology, UCLA.

Teens Struggle with Accidental Exposure to Internet Pornography: An interview with Patricia Greenfield, director of the Children's Digital Media Center and professor of psychology at UCLA.