There's never a dull moment on the internet, especially if you're a teenager with jokes to make and time to spare.
Don't like that Snapchat filter that turns you into a dog? Get lost in random Reddit threads or spend the day trading GIF-filled tweets with your best friend.
But sometimes the fun comes to an abrupt stop thanks someone else's creepy behavior, and everyone starts wondering (again) if the internet is too dangerous a place for kids.
Parents worry a lot about digital stranger danger and exposure to pornography. Teens often think grownups are overreacting. While there's a lot of panic about worst-case scenarios, a new study suggests the impulse to shield teens from bad experiences online might not be the smartest or most effective move.
In the Journal of Pediatrics study, researchers interviewed 515 British adolescents and their parents about internet filters designed to block young people from disturbing content and interactions online. Even though the four major UK internet service providers use filters by default and the technology comes with all new household internet connections, nearly one in six teens in the study said they had at least one significant negative experience online.
The results, says Andrew K. Przybylski, lead author of the study and an experimental psychologist based at the Oxford Internet Institute, should prompt us to reconsider the value of filters.
"It's kind of crazy that so much time and effort and money is spent to protect kids in this way when we don’t know if it’s effective at all," he says.
Przybylski asked the study participants if they'd had seven types of negative experiences, or at least one negative experience online in the last year. The teens, all between the ages of 12 and 15, most commonly reported that a stranger contacted them and wanted to become friends. They also complained that someone else used their password to access personal information or assumed their identity. Other negative experiences included being pressured to send photos to someone and feeling uncomfortable after seeing something of a sexual nature.
Overall, filters didn't reduce the chances that teens would have fewer of these bad experiences.
Adults don't seem to understand or use the technology, either. Only a third of parents reported leaving the filters on while a quarter didn't know or were unaware of their presence.
More harm than good?
Przybylski also worries that censoring the internet can keep teens from accessing important but sensitive information about sexuality, mental health and gender identity.
Family-friendly filters are commonplace in the UK and Europe, where policymakers often err on the side of caution when regulating products that may cause harm to customers. That approach is typically reserved for the introduction of, for example, a new industrial chemical. But concerns over the early sexualization of children and access to pornography led to new filtering practices in 2013.
Schools and libraries in the U.S. also routinely use filters, but parents can choose to purchase software to block certain types of content from their children at home.
Przybylski says that while filters might make sense for younger children, they may not be the right solution for teens. Their use, he says, rests on two unproven assumptions: When teens encounter something online that could be distressing, it automatically leads to harm, and that blocking what they see solves the problem. But the research, Przybylski argues, doesn't provide clear evidence that either belief is true.
Instead, Przybylski says that if we want to protect teens from bad online interactions, it's essential to help them develop the resilience necessary to manage those experiences. That starts with teens having a good sense of who among their friends and family they trust to share experiences without fearing a judgmental response. Seeking supportive feedback and insight after an uncomfortable exchange can help them better navigate difficult feelings.
Teens, Przybylski says, might also try "experimenting with trusting [their] parents" by talking about what they're doing online. That could mean showing them, for example, favorite Snapchat filters so parents are better prepared to talk casually about the thrills and potential threats of living your life online. There are also common sense measures teens can take, like not sharing passwords or publicly posting revealing images and personal informational.
Relying on filters to keep creeps — or creepy behavior — away from teens probably won't work. And, Przybylski says, it reflects a worldview in which young people are intrinsically fragile and shielded from negative experiences until they reach the magical age of 18.
"It assumes a standard vanilla childhood that doesn’t really exist," he says.