A recent study in the United Kingdom conducted by researchers at the Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford on the effectiveness of parental controls suggests that they may not be as effective as was thought at preventing minors from accessing online pornography.

While the study certainly adds to the body of evidence on the effectiveness of parental controls, such as those provided by Internet Service Providers, care should be taken interpreting the findings, especially comparing ISP parental controls with commercial web filtering solutions for schools.

The researchers suggest that their study “Delivered conclusive evidence that filters were not effective for protecting young people from online sexual material,” and such bold claims have naturally been reported in the media as ‘Internet controls not being effective’.

However, the study only assessed whether minors had encountered a single image of nudity or of a sexual nature. No internet filtering solution can be expected to block every single sexual image. The goal of parental controls is not to ensure that pornographic content cannot ever be accessed, only that the chance of it being accessed is reduced to a very low level.

Further, while controls can be put in place to block direct accessing of pornography, parental control filers can easily be bypassed through the use of VPNs and anonymizer services. If a minor wishes to gain access to pornography, it is easy to do so via an anonymizer service. Parental control filters put in place by Internet Service Providers do not block access to anonymizer services.

Search for “free anonymizer” in Google, access the site, and enter the URL of an adult site on a home network with parental controls in place, and you will discover exactly how easy it is to access adult content. Even easier, search for “bypass parental controls” and you will get a long list of options.

Commercial filters, such as those offered to schools and businesses, allow adult content to be blocked but also the use of anonymizer services to prevent filtering controls from being bypassed, providing greater protection – which is necessary in places of business and in schools. If an anonymizer is used and a commercial web filter is in place that blocks anonymizers, access will be denied, and the attempt will be recorded.

What is particularly worrying, is the suggestion that the findings of this study on the effectiveness of parental controls should be applied to schools. The researchers suggest in the paper “Our findings raise the question of whether mandatory state-funded Internet filtering in schools should still be regarded as a cost-effective intervention,” instead, the use of age verification tools or simply boosting educational strategies to support responsible online behavior should be explored.

Commercial web filtering solutions and parental controls solutions are not the same, and it is worth considering the following scenario. If a parent was to discover their child had viewed pornography at school and no filtering controls were in place to prevent access, would that parent agree with the school’s decision not to block pornography because a filter could potentially be bypassed? Or would a parent prefer a filter be put in place to make it harder for such content to be viewed?

The researchers do point out that more research is required to solidify the findings, specifically “to test Internet filtering in an experimental setting, done in accordance to Open Science principles.”

One thing is for certain, the use of web filters and parental controls to protect minors is certainly likely to continue to involve considerable discussion and the solution to the problem of minors accessing online material of a sexual nature is likely to involve a combination of technological controls, monitoring of internet access, and educational efforts.