John Cowan - Do Internet Filters Work?

Publish Date
Friday, 7 April 2017, 3:47PM
Photo: Getty Images

Photo: Getty Images

By John Cowan

I am willing to be proved wrong, but I am seldom happy about it. For example, for years I have been recommending that parents put some type of internet filtering software on their computers at home to protect their children from nasty stuff on the internet. It makes sense, doesn’t it? If they cannot view the rotten stuff, it cannot do them any harm. It makes perfect sense… except when researchers in Britain actually measured whether the filters do any good or not… the results showed they do not seem to do what you pay for. So… I’ve been giving wrong advice. Sorry about that.

I am looking at research done by Oxford University and just published in the Journal of Paediatrics1, based on over a thousand interviews with twelve-to-fifteen-year-olds. One in six said they had experienced something really frightening online2 in the preceding year, something scary or sexual or threatening or someone they didn’t know trying to contact them.  Here’s the thing: a third of the parents were using internet filtering technology to protect their kids, but their kids experienced just as many scary and upsetting events as supposedly unprotected kids.

What can we take from this? I still think filtering is not a bad idea but the real thing to take away is: do not rely on software and gadgets to do your job for you. I think the big thing that keeps kids from being negatively impacted on-line is a close relationship with their parents, for three reasons. First up, in a good close relationship you can monitor what they are doing and negotiate good rules; secondly, if they do get a fright, you can give the support and debriefing that will help them be resilient and get over it, and thirdly, out of a close relationship comes the learning of values and standards, giving them internal filters and firewalls that will be better than any filter package you can buy.

About John

John has been with The Parenting Place ( for seventeen years as their senior writer and presenter.  He had various roles working with youth and families prior to that but actually started his working life as a scientist in neurophysiology at Auckland Hospital.  As well as writing and speaking, John is frequently on radio and television.

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