Software meant to protect young people from the seamier side of the Internet may also be blocking important health information on issues ranging from diabetes and sexually transmitted diseases to depression and suicide, according to a Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation study released yesterday.
This is especially critical, the foundation says, because more and more young people are seeking information from the Internet rather than from adults when it comes to touchy subjects like birth control and substance abuse.
The report added fodder to an already intense debate that has reached the Supreme Court over the congressionally mandated use of filters in public schools and libraries. The Children's Internet Protection Act of 2000 requires that schools and libraries use Web-browsing filters to block pornographic content on computers connected to the Internet or risk losing federal funds. Each institution can set the parameters of its filters however it chooses.
"In some places that is a thoughtful process, and in some places it's done by a tech," said Vicky Rideout, vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, which studies issues of health, media and entertainment for young people. "Policymakers have to realize how you configure the filter is a substantive decision. Each community has to take a look at this data and think about how much risk they are willing to take."
The foundation's report, "See No Evil: How Internet Filters Affect the Search for Online Health Information," concluded that the narrower the focus of a filter -- limited to pornography, for example -- the more health information is available. A higher level of filtering -- to include categories such as tobacco, swimsuits, profanity, jokes, auctions, games and dating -- severely limits access to health information while only marginally increasing protection against pornography.
Researchers looked at six of the most widely used filters, testing them against about 3,500 Web sites. They found that when filters were at their least restrictive setting all but 1.4 percent of health information was accessible. That level of filtering also blocked 87 percent of pornography sites. But when filters were at the most restrictive setting they blocked 24 percent of health information sites and blocked only marginally more pornography sites, 91 percent.
Earlier this year a lower court, ruling on a case brought by the American Library Association opposing the restrictions, declared the Children's Internet Protection Act unconstitutional on First Amendment grounds because of its filtering provisions for public libraries, and the Supreme Court announced last month it would hear the government's appeal of the decision.
That portion of the law governing schools has not been challenged in court -- yet. Kaiser reports that 73 percent of public schools and 43 percent of libraries use some type of filtering.
The report, published in the Dec. 11 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, has activists on both sides of the debate crowing, with each claiming that the findings support their respective positions.
Until now "a lot of the evidence [about filters] has been advocacy or anecdotal," said David Burt, a spokesman for N2H2, a company that has sold filtering software to 40 percent of schools that use filters. "This shows us that filters do work."
"We're gratified once more that there's a study finding that filtering doesn't work," said Emily Sheketoff of the American Library Association. "The filters failed 13 percent of the time. That's a lot that's getting through.
"More and more people live their daily lives on the Internet. Filters are not the way to protect children. . . . A great deal of constitutionally protected information is being censored."
Kaiser's Rideout isn't surprised that both sides are finding ammunition in the report. The important factors to remember, she cautions, are that schools are required to use filters and that young people are choosing the Internet as a source for sometimes life-and-death information. According to Kaiser, 70 percent of 15- to 17-year-olds say they have used the Internet to look up health information.
"We need to balance the desire to protect kids from the most egregious pornography and still give them access to the health information they need," she said. "I think this shows that it is possible for filters, if narrowly focused on pornography, to do a good job. On the other hand, we suspect there are a lot of schools and libraries trying to block more than pornography. And it does appear they are blocking health information when they do that."
Among the sites that researchers found were blocked by the most restrictive filtering included several on diabetes, the U.S. government site on treatment of sexually transmitted diseases, a USA Today news story on birth control research and many sites dealing with sexual health, including Kaiser's own Web site for adolescents. One page featured a quiz that included the question "By age 24, how many sexually active people will have contracted an STD?" The answer, by the way, is one out of three.
Sites most frequently blocked by the toughest filters included the words and phrases "gay or lesbian," "condoms," "safe sex" and "abortion." Sites with "gay," "lesbian" or "condoms" were blocked more than 50 percent of the time.
Caroline Richardson, a Veterans Administration health investigator at the University of Michigan and an author of the study, calls online access to health information a "dramatic revolution." "In my [medical] practice more adolescents are turning to the Internet than they are to adults," she said.
Yesterday at a news conference at the National Press Club to announce the study results, Richardson described a 15-year-old boy who found himself sleeping far more than normal. He went to the Internet to look for possible reasons, found information on depression and came to see her for help. It turned out that he was indeed severely depressed, she said.
Researchers tested four categories of search terms: health topics unrelated to sex, such as the drug Ecstasy and alcohol; health topics involving "sexual" body parts, such as breast cancer, jock itch and yeast infection; health topics related to sex, including condoms and pregnancy; and controversial health topics such as the abortion pill RU486 and date rape.
For the search term "depression," for example, the least restrictive filter parameters blocked no Web sites, but the most restrictive blocked 11.2 percent. For the term "gay," the least restrictive blocked 11.1 percent of the sites and the most restrictive blocked 59.9 percent. For "condoms," the percentage of sites blocked was 9.9 (least restrictive) and 55.4 (most restrictive).
The search terms were chosen after a smaller pilot study that involved observing 12 young people as they searched for health information on the Internet.
One of the more ironic findings of the study, Richardson said, is not that health information was being blocked but that the young people searching had their own difficulties -- filter or no filter.
"These kids can't spell," Richardson said. "Thirty out of 132 search terms they used were misspelled. If you don't spell it correctly, you won't find anything like what you are looking for."
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