Project Overview +

This project provides a careful empirical assessment of the extent to which access to health information is impeded or aided by commercial Internet filters as commonly configured in homes, schools, and libraries.

Aims +

Aim 1. Conduct a preliminary study to identify the most popular search engines and searching strategies of high school students.

Aim 2. Develop model search strings for health topics based on the preliminary study.

Aim 3. Develop an automated system to test the effects of commercial Internet filters on access to health topics.

Aim 4. Test a variety of health topic search strings using a variety of popular search engines and a variety of internet blocking and filtering software products and analyze the results.

Participants +

This project does not have any participants. Researcher will analyze the extent to which pornography-blocking software used in schools and libraries limits access to health information Web sites.

Intervention +

The Internet has become an important tool for finding health information, especially among adolescents. Many computers have software designed to block access to Internet pornography. Because pornography-blocking software cannot perfectly discriminate between pornographic and nonpornographic Web sites, such products may block access to health information sites, particularly those related to sexuality.

In a simulation of adolescent Internet searching, we compile search results from 24 health information searches (n = 3206) and 6 pornography searches (n = 781). We then classify the content of each site as health information (n = 2467), pornography (n = 516), or other (n = 1004). We also compile a list of top teen health information sites (n = 586). We then test 6 blocking products commonly used in schools and libraries and 1 blocking product used on home computers, each at 2 or 3 levels of blocking restrictiveness.

Findings +

At the least restrictive blocking setting, configured to block only pornography, the products blocked a mean of only 1.4% of health information sites. The differences between blocking products was small (range, 0.6%-2.3%).

About 10% of health sites found using some search terms related to sexuality (e.g., safe sex, condoms) and homosexuality (e.g., gay) were blocked. The mean pornography blocking rate was 87% (range, 84%-90%).

At moderate settings, the mean blocking rate was 5% for health information and 90% for pornography.

At the most restrictive settings, health information blocking increased substantially (24%), but pornography blocking was only slightly higher (91%).

Conclusion +

Blocking settings have a greater impact than choice of blocking product on frequency of health information blocking.

At their least restrictive settings, overblocking of general health information poses a relatively minor impediment. However, searches on some terms related to sexuality led to substantially more health information blocking.

More restrictive blocking configurations blocked pornography only slightly more, but substantially increased blocking of health information sites.