School Internet Filtering Works — Or at Least Appears to
Traditional equity investors often view school Internet censorship as a major loss for the American educational system, even though evidence shows that Internet filters are just as effective, if not more so, than conventional school filters in controlling Internet access. I wrote a book about school Internet filters called Security Software & the School Child, and often hear investment advisors complain that school Internet filtering is ineffective at best and destructive at worst, undermining parental controls, filtering education and loss of free speech. So, I was quite excited when a study was published by the American School Culture Survey that suggests school Internet filters actually are effective at reducing Internet access and reducing access to harmful content.
The study was based on the computer and Internet use of 5,309 U.S. public and private schools. While the researchers predicted that school Internet filtering would decrease average student use of the Internet to about 40% from 44% of all Internet use at the schools in 2010, it turned out that the actual average was just 31% in 2012. This actually exceeds the amount of Internet use in a typical American home today. But the problem may not lie with school-based Internet filtering, but with the control of device usage, just as use of free speech is controlled at home. These researchers were able to compare computers in California schools with schools that ran internet filtering with those that did not, to see which kinds of children were more exposed to the Internet.
To test whether school filtering really worked, they analyzed data from a survey of students. Students were asked to answer questions about their Internet access, including age, gender, marital status, and residence. Students were also asked whether they had used an Internet filter, though it is not clear how comprehensive the filtering actually was. The researchers assumed that with the average filtering only 31% of students in the school-based filtering programs were on the Internet at any given time, but that these students were exposed to more harmful content. They used feedback from parents to estimate how effective school filters were at actually controlling access.
In 2004, the researchers estimated that filtering generated an additional 13.4 hours of Internet time. But this increased only to 15.2 hours by 2012, a loss of 1.5 hours per year. This finding contrasted with the loss of 18.8 hours from the control group, a massive decrease of 53.7 hours per year, equivalent to 25% of the time students spend on the Internet in the control group. More importantly, the researchers found that a school-based filtering program actually reduced exposure to harmful material by 10%. They also found that the youngest children were more likely to be exposed to harmful material than the oldest, and a school-based filtering program reduced exposure to web pornography by 11.6%.
Obviously, while this study has only been done with a small sample of schools, the results strongly suggest that school-based Internet filtering should still be in use to reduce access to bad and harmful content. A better-designed (and more effective) filtering program would need to focus on restricting access to graphic and low-quality material and allowing it only with parental permission. However, while this study offers some evidence that school-based filtering can reduce access to harmful content, as the authors point out, we simply do not know if filtering is doing more than just controlling access to harmful material. And as long as students are still exposed to toxic content, school-based filtering is still inadequate in its contribution to education and communication within a school.
The main lesson from the study is that school-based Internet filtering is ineffective at reducing Internet access. While it certainly has its downsides, filtering on its own is probably not going to be a game-changer in terms of fostering healthier student participation in digital culture. However, school-based filters are in real need of modernization, which is an issue I plan to address in a future post.