How Internet Filters Block Sexuality Info From Teens
Originally Published: April 4, 2013
Revised: April 4, 2013
Blocked! That’s the message that flashes across computer screens at many schools all over the country when students try to access information about what a sexually transmitted disease (STD) is, where to find their local free clinic or how to start a gay–straight alliance (GSA) at their school. At some schools, it’s impossible to access websites such as Sexetc.org, but it shouldn’t be that way.
According to the Child Internet Protection Act of 2000, public libraries and K-12 schools are required to protect minors—children and teens like you and me—by filtering pornographic material off of their server. But unfortunately, critical information, including sexuality education, gets blocked as well. It’s one thing to watch videos of people having or simulating sex; it’s another to educate yourself about sex and sexuality.
Information—Our First Amendment Right
Although it’s important to make sure that an eight-year-old doesn’t stumble across a pornographic video while browsing the Internet at school, it’s also important that a guy looking up information on where to get an HIV test finds it. Teens from all around the nation have experienced their school blocking the sexual health information they need.
It’s one thing to watch videos of people having or simulating sex; it’s another to educate yourself about sex and sexuality.
Sixteen-year-old Nada from New Jersey says, “It’s really frustrating when I try to look up something on the Internet at school. It makes it seem as though sex education is something that isn’t good.”
Brandon, a 16-year-old from Florida, says, “When a school blocks anything related to these subjects, all they do is alienate the people involved with them and create this almost demoralizing sense of, ‘Is what I’m doing wrong?’ inside them.”
Adults’ fears about sexuality can make you feel like wanting answers to your questions about sexuality is wrong. But how could getting accurate information be wrong?
Ashley, an 18-year-old from Indiana, says filtering info about sex and sexuality “is just another form of the sexual repression we force on our children in the U.S. from the moment they’re born.”
In many areas of the country, anything related to sexuality is blocked—from condoms and birth control to abortion. Brandon says his school blocks all information regarding sexual health, including abortion and issues related to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) people. So if a gay teenager was being teased and wanted to look up information about sexual orientation or homophobia, he wouldn’t find it.
Don’t Filter Me
What Brandon’s school and other schools across the country are doing is actually illegal. Blocking information infringes on students’ First Amendment rights to receive information.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) launched the “Don’t Filter Me” campaign in 2011. As part of the campaign, the ACLU has sent dozens of letters to schools across the country, demanding that the schools remove anti-LGBTQ Internet filters. Blocking LGBTQ information is, in one word, discriminatory, and it implies that being LGBTQ is something that is wrong and should be hidden.
Being LGBTQ harms nobody, but blocking LGBTQ information from the school Internet does. It’s as if the school frowns upon people who aren’t heterosexual, because information about LGBTQ people is completely removed. By blocking out this information, it erases history as well. Teens can’t learn about the sacrifices of Harvey Milk, the nation’s first elected openly gay official, or other notable LGBTQ people. Schools that block LGBTQ information are preventing teens from learning about and understanding sexual orientation and identity.
To find out more about why schools block information about sexual health and sexuality, I decided to speak with Dr. David Heisey, the principal of my school, Scotch Plains Fanwood High School in New Jersey.
According to Dr. Heisey, “Content filtering is usually passive, and key words are set by default to protect Internet users. So ‘sex,’ ‘gambling,’ ‘social networking’ and ‘firearms’ are some of these general categories. Content-filtering can be broken down and be website specific, but having general categories is the most successful.”
Successful for whom? Although this system prevents minors from being exposed to sexually explicit images, it also means that they will miss out on information regarding sexual health, like where to get an STD test or how to put on a condom.
Dr. Heisey acknowledges that there are big categories that block out all information, educational or not, particularly when it comes to sex.
“There have been a number of occasions where teachers have contacted the tech department and asked them to unblock a site. We do practice that, unblocking a certain site when a teacher asks,” explains Dr. Heisey.
My school’s Internet blocking policy isn’t very strict. Thankfully, we don’t filter LGBTQ-related websites, and “abortion” as a category isn’t filtered. But there are schools in other parts of the country, like Brandon’s, that strongly police students’ Internet habits.
What You Can Do to Fight Filtering
So the next time you look something up at school, remember to pay close attention to whether filtering is preventing you from getting the educational information you need. And even if it isn’t, you can still help to make your school’s Internet a more useful tool by doing the following:
- Talk to your school’s principal or tech department about the importance of letting teens have access to sexual health information.
- If LGBTQ info is filtered at your school, visit the ACLU’s “Don’t Filer Me” campaign to share with them what’s happening at your school.
We deserve honest, accurate information about sexuality, and it shouldn’t be kept from us, especially not at school—where we’re supposed to be learning!
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