Internet filters can also block health sites
Devices intended to protect young people from
pornography may screen out useful medical information.
Susan J. Landers, AMNews staff.
Jan. 20, 2003. Additional information
Washington -- Teens are more
likely to seek health information online than from physicians, but they
could well be stymied by Internet filters.
A study funded by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation found that the
filters required in schools and libraries can block access to health
information. If set on their most restrictive levels, Internet filters can
block access to a wide array of sexual health issues such as safe sex and
condom use, said the study, published in the Dec. 11, 2002, JAMA.
However, filters can be adjusted to allow access to health information
while still blocking pornography, noted the researchers.
"Filters can strike a good balance between protecting kids from
pornography while still giving them access to online health information,
but only if they're configured carefully," said Kaiser Family Foundation
Vice President Vicky Rideout. "Otherwise they can be a serious obstacle,
especially on issues such as pregnancy, sexually transmitted diseases, and
Ann Arbor, Mich., family physician Caroline Richardson, MD, an author
of the study, is also concerned about the impact of the restrictive
filters on teens who don't show up for care in physicians' offices. "There
tends to be a gap in care, especially for those teens who are uninsured,"
she said. "They may need access to health information, but not have access
to health care."
Dr. Richardson, who is also a lecturer in the University of Michigan's
Dept. of Family Medicine and a research scientist at the Dept. of Veterans
Affairs, points to the Internet's increasingly important role in the
nation's health care delivery system as a driving force behind the study.
70% of older teens have used the Internet to look up health
"One of my main areas of research is health services delivery and
access," she said. "The thought that we might gradually be eroding the
power of the Internet to provide these kinds of interventions because of
blocking software in schools and libraries was very concerning to me."
That teens spend a great deal of time online is no surprise, but they
apparently spend a significant proportion of that time researching health
issues, according to a Kaiser study conducted in 2001. That study
indicated that 70% of 15- to 17-year-olds have used the Internet to look
up health information; 40% have researched sexual health issues such as
birth control or sexually transmitted diseases.
The study also found that 73% of schools and 43% of libraries use
filters of some kind. The Children's Internet Protection Act of 2000
requires filters on all computers in schools that receive federal funds.
The law's requirement that libraries also use filters was overturned by a
federal court and is awaiting review by the U.S. Supreme Court.
The JAMA study, "See No Evil: How Internet Filters Affect the
Search for Online Health Information," tested the six most commonly used
filters at their "least," "intermediate," and "most" restrictive settings.
At their least restrictive level, the filters block an average of 1.4%
of health sites, according to the study. When set at their most
restrictive level, the filters block 24% of health sites.
However, the amount of pornographic content blocked was found to
increase only marginally, from 87% at the least restrictive configuration,
to 91% at the most restrictive.
40% of older teens have researched sexual health issues online.
The researchers conducted online searches of 24 health topics such as
breast cancer, diabetes and birth control and six pornographic terms, such
as free sex, hardcore porn and teen porn across six different search
engines popular with teens. The 3,000 health and 500 pornographic sites
that came up during the searches were then tested against the six filters
most widely used by schools and libraries.
In addition to level of restriction, each filtering product can be
configured to block many different categories of content. Some can be
adjusted to specify exceptions for medical or sex education information.
"Whoever is making the decisions needs to think really hard about the
settings they are picking because when they make decisions about the
settings, they are also making decisions about access to health
information," said Dr. Richardson.
Back to top.
No Evil: How Internet Filters Affect the Search for Online Health
Information," from the Kaiser Family Foundation (http://www.kff.org/content/2002/20021210a/)
Back to top.
Copyright 2003 American Medical Association. All