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.
To quantify the extent to which pornography-blocking software used in
schools and libraries limits access to health information Web sites.
Design and Setting
In a simulation of adolescent Internet searching, we compiled search
results from 24 health information searches (n = 3206) and 6 pornography searches
(n = 781). We then classified the content of each site as either health information
(n = 2467), pornography (n = 516), or other (n = 1004). We also compiled a
list of top teen health information sites (n = 586). We then tested 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.
Main Outcome Measure
Rates of health information and pornography blocking.
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%).
However, about 10% of health sites found using some search terms related to
sexuality (eg, safe sex, condoms) and homosexuality (eg, 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%).
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.