Porn is not, let’s say, difficult to find online. This prevalence and accessibility of sexual imagery on the web has prompted many parents and political figures to try and sieve the smut from screens of the youth. But a new study indicates that these efforts are largely a waste of time and money.
This month, researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute published a paper—Internet Filtering and Adolescent Exposure to Online Sexual Material—that looks at whether internet filters for sexual material online were an effective preventative measure caretakers can take with young people. According to the study, they’re not.
“The struggle to shape the experiences young people have online is now part of modern parenthood,” the authors of the study wrote. “This study was conducted to address the value of industry, policy, and professional advice concerning the appropriate role of Internet filtering in this struggle. Our preliminary findings suggested that filters might have small protective effects, but evidence derived from a more stringent and robust empirical approach indicated that they are entirely ineffective.”
What’s more, the authors point out that the potency of these tools needs to be further studied. Porn filters often cost caretakers to implement and surely cost developers to create, and if they are ultimately useless, or, in some cases, censoring educational content, they should be more rigorously scrutinized.
The researchers looked at 9,352 male and 9,357 female subjects, aged 11 to 16 years old, from the European Union and the United Kingdom. They also looked at an “equal number” of caregivers, totaling 18,709 caregiver-children pairs. Nearly half of the young people surveyed had an internet filter in their household. The researchers found that “more than 99.5 percent of whether a young person encountered online sexual material had to do with factors besides their caregiver’s use of Internet filtering technology.” They also found that young people in homes with internet filters were more likely to have seen violent porn in the last six months than kids in homes without a filter.
It’s an important and timely study, not just for parents grappling with how to control what their children are looking at online, but to inform policies. “Our findings raise the question of whether mandatory state-funded Internet filtering in schools should still be regarded as a cost-effective intervention, while also providing a clear rationale for investigation of other preventative methods, such as age verification tools, or educational strategies to support responsible behavior online and promote resilience,” the authors wrote.
While this study looked at young people in European countries, there are also political figures in the U.S. hellbent on pushing anti-porn agendas into policy. In 2016, a proposed bill in South Carolina would require that all devices sold come equipped with a porn filter—unless you petition to pay the $20 fee to buy one without it. That same year, Utah State Senator Todd Weiler proposed a bill that would require all cellphones be equipped with internet filters and anti-porn software. Also in 2016— big year for Utah’s war on porn—Utah Governor Gary Herbert declared porn a “public health crisis” in the state. In fact, it wasn’t until early this year that the state passed a bill to eliminate its pornography czar position.
The study from the Oxford Internet Institute helps to undermine these sweeping and reactionary assaults on a free internet, however well-intentioned they may be, providing evidence that these measures are made in vain. Rather than fight it, perhaps caretakers should consider educating young people on sexual material and the internet.
Filters or not, if the kids want to find porn, they’re probably going to find porn.