Parenting in the Information Age: A Practical Guide

Jeremy Godfrey demonstrates why site blocking and filtering may not be the answer to promoting a safer online experience for children
Jeremy Godfrey demonstrates why site blocking and filtering may not be the answer to promoting a safer online experience for children

A headline in the Independent read: “We need to help protect children from internet porn, say teachers.” A Daily Mail columnist called on the government to “ensure that internet feeds are porn-free unless over-18 users specifically request it.” The Daily Mirror reported a mother bemoaning: “I caught my 8-year-old sending NAKED pics of herself.”

Every week we see news articles about children being exposed to inappropriate material online and comment pieces proposing (or opposing) various solutions. On one side of the debate are proponents of measures such as compulsory filtering by internet service providers (ISPs). On the other side are those who argue that these measures are ineffective, promote a dangerously false sense of security, and that they unacceptably interfere with freedom of communication.

How can we know who’s right?

A few years ago, when I was responsible for internet governance in the Hong Kong government, we were facing a similar debate. Religious organizations and conservative groups were arguing for the government to amend the law on obscene and indecent publications to make some sort of filtering mandatory. Liberal political groups and internet freedom advocates were vehemently opposed.

Instead of waiting to see whether either side of the debate could gather overwhelming support for its position, we decided to see if we could collect any hard evidence on the effectiveness of filtering software, compared with other techniques to promote childrens’ online safety. This soon became a more general study on effective parenting in the information age.

Fact Finding

We started with a program of qualitative interviews with parents and teenage children. We asked them about their perceptions of the benefits and risks of using the internet. We asked them about the techniques that parents used to guide and supervise their children’s use of the internet. And we asked them how effective they thought the techniques were.

Among lower-income, less-educated parents, the main concern was the amount of time their children were spending online. Parents did not know what their children were doing, but they assumed it was distracting them from schoolwork. A typical supervision technique was to limit time spent online, and to pull the power plug out of the wall if children refused to comply.

Better-off, better-educated families had a greater appreciation both of the risks and the benefits of being online. They also had a closer relationship with their children. One father told us that he had come across his son looking at pornographic material online. He engaged his son in a discussion about the differences between the soft-porn magazines of his youth and the harder-core online material available today.

We followed-up with a large program of quantitative research, involving 2,500 families. When we presented this research at the United Nations’ Internet Governance Forum, we were told this was the most thorough survey of its kind ever carried out.

We asked a wide range of questions about demographics – age, income level, parental education level and parental familiarity with the internet. We surveyed about parenting style – whether they were authoritarian, engaged or laissez-faire. We also queried about the techniques used to promote internet safety, including the use of filtering software, not allowing computers in bedrooms, regularly talking to children about their online experiences, setting rules, etc. We asked about parents’ and children’s awareness of and their concerns about different sorts of online risks.

Finally, we asked how satisfied parents were with their effectiveness in guiding and supervising children's use of the internet.

The Results

Based on the data we gathered, we used statistical techniques to see what factors could best explain why some parents were satisfied with their ability to supervise their children online, while others were not.
The most surprising result was that use of filtering software was correlated with lower levels of parental satisfaction regarding their ability to guide and supervise children’s use of the internet.

There was a very interesting reason for this finding. It turned out that satisfied parents tended to have better education, better knowledge about the internet and were positively engaged with all aspects of their children’s lives. These parents, generally speaking, did not rely on filtering software, but used a range of other techniques to guide and supervise their children online.

In contrast, the less satisfied parents didn’t have as much knowledge or as close a relationship with their children. Without an ability to use other strategies, they were more likely to fall back on filtering software. But they were not confident that the software was adequate or effective.

So what did we do?

We decided that our policy goal should be targeted at raising awareness of parents and teachers about the risks and benefits of internet usage, and the range of techniques they could use to help children have a positive online experience.

We decided not to make filtering software compulsory. But we did make it easier for parents to install it, recognizing that, in some cases, it could be a useful part of an online parenting strategy.

The Response

Our internet education campaign lasted a year. It was run by a network of NGOs, which between them recruited 500 full-time internet ambassadors. The ambassadors conducted home visits and ran events in schools. There were also Hong Kong-wide initiatives, such as a “Safer Internet Day”, publication of parents’ guides and a website with educational games.

In a city of around 8 million people, the campaign performed over 90,000 home visits, reached over 200,000 parents, teachers and children in school-based events, answered over 30,000 telephone queries and secured almost 250,000 plays of the online educational games.

The program has had enduring effects, particularly among teachers. Before we started, it was common for teachers to think that online activity took place outside school and that issues such as cyber-bullying and online safety had nothing to do with them. This perception has changed. Teachers now see that developing information literacy is part of their job. And they have the support they need to do this effectively.

The press reports mentioned at the start of this article show that parents and teachers are asking for help in keeping children safe online. The existence of institutions like the Family Online Safety Institute and the Safe and Secure Online program indicate that this is a global phenomenon. Governments around the world can most effectively respond by giving parents and educators greater knowledge of online threats, and by equipping them to develop information literacy from an early age.

Jeremy Godfrey has 30 years of experience in the ICT sector, as a government official, industry executive and management consultant. He was the former Government Chief Information Officer in Hong Kong from 2008–2011.

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