2009 Winning Essay


"Filtering Distraction to Facilitate Learning"

by John D. DelBianco
Trinity School at Meadow View, Falls Church

            The Internet provides not only unprecedented convenience and entertainment, but also an unprecedented dilemma.  Its volumes of educational resources are punctuated by a vast number of games and mature websites that threaten to distract students from their schoolwork in classrooms and libraries.  While filters prohibit most of the objectionable content, they sometimes block useful websites and have sparked a debate about their own usefulness and Constitutionality.

            Detractors argue that Internet filters undermine education by blocking resources that students need to complete assignments.  The Internet was created to be a convenient research tool, but filters make the Internet less helpful.  The removal of filters supports the mission of education by opening the widest possible universe to inquiring minds.  Some go further to insist that filters inhibit access to material that is protected by the First Amendment.  Detractors of filters also claim that adults should be allowed to make their own decisions, teenagers should be given more responsibility, and children should be protected by their parents.

            Proponents counter that filters effectively reduce distractions by preventing students from playing online games and viewing offensive content.  That filters may also block harmless content is the price we pay for safety.  Proponents admit that teenagers should be accepting more responsibility, but argue that they are legally minors and therefore subject to the Children's Internet Protection Act1 and similar legislation.  The complaint that filters operate arbitrarily can be easily dismissed with the publication of the filtering standards used by the particular institution's software and the inclusion of student input in determining the level of filter restriction.

            In my opinion, Internet filters should remain on school and library computers because filtering software reduces the number of distractions and, therefore, furthers the educational mission of schools and libraries.  The primary purpose of any educational institution is to educate, not entertain.  Removing the filters would greatly undermine the mission of schools and libraries by allowing students to play games, view inappropriate material, and distract their peers while they should be enhancing their knowledge and investing in their futures.

            Although filtering software itself hinders education by making research a more toilsome task, this is only to a small extent.  A recent study indicates that filters on the least-restrictive setting prohibit the vast majority of offensive and distracting websites, while permitting a high percentage of educationally-appropriate material.2,3  Also, administrators can create lists of specific sites to be blocked and permitted.  They can permit particular sites that have educational value, but whose text or images may falsely trigger the filter.  A teacher may disable the software for a student who is committed to conducting bona fide research.  To ensure that the filter is disabled without delay and properly restored immediately after the student is finished, staff must be trained to use the specific filtering software that the public facility employs.  Websites, such as YouTube, that possess significant educational value but also pose a risk for abuse, can be easily unlocked by teachers for a classroom lesson, but barred to unsupervised students.

            Filters not only reduce gaming distractions, but also prevent the distraction and discomfort caused by the public display of offensive online content.  Displaying nude photographs on a public computer screen is akin to broadcasting obscene material on a television; both are visible to more than a singular audience and create the possibility of unwanted exposure to controversial content.  With regard to television, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) completely prohibits obscene material and limits indecent content, that which is less objectionable than obscene, to nighttime hours.4  In the same way, obscene material on the computer should be forcibly banned in public facilities.  Filters are necessary, as large institutions do not have enough staff members to monitor every computer and a simple bond of trust would inevitably be violated.  While the FCC has designated adult-only viewing hours for indecent material, no such hours exist in libraries and schools, and rightfully so.  The purpose of these facilities is to enrich the learning experiences of all members of the community, especially students.

            Furthermore, filters are similar to the screening process that books undergo before they enter the library.  Libraries, in their mission to enlighten the community, do not allow any pornographic printed material, so they should not give students unrestricted access to such material online.  Librarians screen books, but rely on filtering software to screen websites because they lack the time and resources to do so themselves.  Filters separate the worthy information from the less-than-helpful material.

            Are filters a violation of our First Amendment rights?  No.  The First Amendment protects an American's right to place almost anything he or she wants on the Internet.  This Amendment was intended to allow the dissemination of many perspectives.  Filters block offensive and distracting content to make the Internet suitable for the particular user and appropriate for educational purposes.  Filters are not intended to stifle free speech for insidious ends, but to protect those who find obscene material offensive and help students be productive at school.  The school board's regulation of the dress code and content of the school newspaper, like Internet filtering, is not a violation of the freedom of speech and expression.  The sole intention of the school board, as well as Internet filters, is to provide an environment that facilitates learning.

            In conclusion, filters are an asset to classrooms and libraries, where they aid education more than they hinder it.  Filters have limitations and are no substitute for vigilance on the part of teachers and librarians.  The few downsides to the use of filters, however, are outweighed by their many benefits.  By effectively blocking distractions and preventing the public display of obscene material, filters support the educational responsibility of schools and libraries.

Endnotes

1 Library of Congress, “Children's Internet Protection Act,” 19 January 1999, http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/z?c106:S.97.IS:, accessed 25 February 2009.

2 Schwartz, John, “Internet Filters Block Many Useful Sites, Study Finds,” 11 December 2002, New York Times, http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9D07E1DE143AF932A25751C1A9649C8B63, accessed 25 February 2009.

3 The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, “See No Evil: How Internet Filters Affect the Search for Online Health Information,” 10 December 2002, http://www.kff.org/entmedia/20021210a-index.cfm, accessed 20 February 2009.

4 Federal Communications Commission, “Obscene, Indecent, and Profane Broadcasts,” 8 October 2008, http://www.fcc.gov/cgb/consumerfacts/obscene.html, accessed 22 February 2009.

Updated: Nov 17, 2009