EU to parents: Don’t trust child safety to Internet filters

A new study released by the European Commission finds that while most Internet filtering software does a good job of blocking access to particular Web sites, the technology is significantly less successful at filtering “Web 2.0” content like social networking services and blogs. And just to make parents more nervous, only a handful of products can do anything about filtering content to mobile phones, portable devices, or game consoles—which are how almost a third of children in Europe access the Internet.

The study looked at 26 parental control tools for PCs, three for console game systems, and two for mobile phones, finding that the software did a good job of filtering adult online content, but there was at least a 20 percent chance the filters would let through sites that promote self-harm (thinks like self-mutilation, anorexia, and suicide), while at the same time occasionally blocking sites with legitimate child-oriented content. Overall only a few tools were able to filter effectively so-called “Web 2.0” content (like forums, social networking services, and blogs) or services like instant messaging.

The study also found that 31 percent of children access the Internet with their phones, while a quarter access the Internet through platforms like game consoles.

The full study—along with evaluations of individual products by platform and age group—is available online.

The study was released in parallel with a survey that looked at how parents in the EU utilize parent controls software and manage childrens’ access to the Internet.

The survey found that 70 percent of parents surveyed say they talk to their children about their activities on the Internet, and some 28 percent filter Web sites accessible to children, while 24 percent monitor or track the sites accessed by children. However, there were significant differences between EU member states: 54 percent of UK parents reported filtering or tracking sites, where only 9 percent of parents in Romania reported doing the same. Overall, over half of parents said they talk with children about things that might bother them online, and how to behave towards others on the Internet.

“Our research shows that children welcome their parents’ involvement with the risks of being online but that there are too few technical tools to help with blocking contacts, filtering unwanted content, or reporting problems when they happen,” said EU Kids Online project director Sonia Livingstone, in a statement. “Where these tools exist, we suspect there is little awareness of them and how to use them.”

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