More Evidence That Filtering Doesn’t Work: Teach Resilience Too

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Earlier this month a study was published in the Journal of Pediatrics that looked at internet filtering and the adverse experiences of adolescents online. There are countless software options for filtering content on your smartphone, computer, tablet or even to filter all content via your home wi-fi. Filtering has become big business. It makes us all feel better. Many parents install parental controls of some kind onto their children’s devices. Many addicts use these programs to help them stay away from pornography or other acting out apps. Just because installing these apps makes us feel better doesn’t actually mean that they are working.

In order to address this question – do these apps really decrease the adverse experiences kids have online- two researchers from Oxford interviewed 1030 adolescents (aged 12 to 15) as well as their caregivers. The researchers hypothesized (like we all do) that having some sort of filtering software installed on digital devices would protect the kids from negative online experiences. In this study, only 34% of parents said they used some sort of network filtering. Nearly 50% of the adolescent participants felt competent to work around any filter that was installed on their devices.

The results of this study indicated that the presence of internet filtering software did not reduce a child’s risk of being exposed to some type of adverse online experience. This could have been bullying, sexual advances, pornography exposure, etc. The authors of the study suggest, as I have written about previously, that parents, caretakers and educators invest time in teaching adolescents resilience skills,particularly focused on internet use and exposure to negative online experiences.

What is digital resilience? It is the ability of children to cope with negative online content in a healthy and appropriate manner. This involves both their own use of the internet, and particularly social media, but also the content that they view. Some have suggested teaching digital citizenship to young people. This includes helping young people assess representations of body image online; learning how to identify fake news; learning how to control one’s own internet use and learning how to disengage. (for more information on this see the Growing Up Digital Report).

The United Kingdom has suggested 5 Rights for adolescents regarding digital use.

  1. The right to remove: This means that everyone should be aware of how to remove any information that they have posted themselves. Additionally, anyone using social media should be aware if it is possible to remove something that someone else posted of them. If it is possible, they should know how to do it.
  2. The right to know: This means that everyone who is using the internet, but particularly social media for teens, should understand what sites are doing with your information. Who has access to your data? Who do they give it to, etc?
  3. The right to safety and support: This means that adolescents should know that they can turn to someone for support if they encounter something online that they do not understand or that they find distressing. They need to have someone in their life that they can trust with this communication.
  4. The right to informed and conscious use: This means that everyone should understand that the digital world is complicated and that they can turn it off. This also means they have access to the skills to switch off for a period of time.
  5. The right to digital literacy: This means that adolescents should really understand the technology that they are using and it’s purpose.

As an example, most people just get on an app and start using it. They do not actually read the user agreement which will state if the user has any privacy at all and what rights they have to content. Those agreements also discuss what content is appropriate and how to report inappropriate content. Most teens never read these agreements so lack digital literacy and their right to know is not met.

The right to safety and support is the providence of parents. Do you talk to your children about online content. Are you a safe person for them to talk to about things they see online? Do you provide support or lecture? Also, as a parent, you can enforce digital time outs or digital vacations. This is something that no teen is going to want to engage in, but parents are still the ones to set boundaries. Is there a no tech rule at the dinner table that EVERYONE (you too parents) follows? Does the family engage in any no-tech activities?

Since the scientific evidence is mounting to indicate that filtering access to content is not very effective for protecting teens from adverse online experiences, we need to do more. If you filter, you also need to teach digital literacy and resilience.

For more information on how to talk to your child, you can purchase my book on Amazon by clicking here.

For more information on Dr. Weeks and her practice, click here.

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