Web filters not good for schools or students, education professor says

September 03, 2003

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Internet filters may help protect parents from their fears, and schools from lawsuits, but they're "highly imperfect" tools for protecting children, says Nicholas Burbules.

"They create a false sense of security and, ironically, could actually exacerbate the problem," says Burbules, the Grayce Wicall Gauthier professor of education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Parents and teachers who believe filters block all harmful material -- when none come close to doing that - may pay less attention to what kids are actually doing online, Burbules said.

Also, what most filters define as harmful is often very subjective, he said. Pornography and sexual content gets a lot of attention, but it's only a small piece of what can be found that can be perceived as harmful, including advertising targeted at children, he said. "The average kid is much more likely to be exploited by a commercial company than by an online predator, but we worry incessantly about one and don't even think about the other."

Burbules is not in favor of trying to make better Web filters, but rather of not using them at all. He and Thomas Callister Jr., chair of the department of education at Whitman College, make their case in a new paper posted at http://faculty.ed.uiuc.edu/burbules/ncb/papers/straight.html.

Burbules and Callister, both former teachers as well as fathers of young children, have spent years studying the educational ramifications of information technology. Among their collaborations was the book "Watch IT: The Risks and Promises of Information Technologies in Education" (Westview Press, 2000).

Web filters not only create a false sense of security, they encourage censorship, Burbules said. Since filter-makers are faulted more for what gets through, not what is blocked by mistake, "they're always going to err on the side of excluding too much rather than too little," he said. The censorship is even more troubling because filter-makers won't reveal how their filters decide what to block and why.

Added to that, "it's totally hypocritical, to say nothing of self-defeating, to try to impose standards on the Internet that we don't impose on other parts of our culture," Burbules said. It might be better, in fact, for children to explore certain topics through the Internet, where parents and teachers potentially have more awareness and control, and can discuss what the children find.

Despite their flaws, filters may make some sense for young children, Burbules said. "But the older a child is, the less likely filters are to work (kids learn how to get around them), and the more important it becomes to acknowledge and engage their curiosity, rather than simply to block it."

While the Internet holds some dangers, Burbules said, "learning to inhabit and navigate this space, safely, is one of the most important things that schools need to teach young people today."

But like learning to drive -- an analogy Burbules credits to one of his students -- "there are certain things that can only be learned by exposing kids to dangers and to the risk of doing something wrong."

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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