Child-Friendly Search Engines May Actually Endanger Children

This past week, a new kid-safe search engine called Kiddle was blowing up the Internet, and probably not in the way its creators hoped. While some parents are singing the site's praises, others are concerned by what the site defines as "safe," as the site initially blocked words like "bisexual," "transgender," "queer," and "gay marriage" as inappropriate for kids — leading parents and others to debate whether restricting access to information is really best for kids. It's a debate that has been raging ever since the Internet went mainstream, with schools and parents alike limiting Web browsing capability in the name of keeping kids safe. But does it actually improve kids' lives?

The intent is admirable — the Internet can be an awful place, and there's content that definitely isn't appropriate for children almost everywhere you look. Explicit porn, hate sites, animal abuse, and more isn't hard to locate with Google, even with Safe Search enabled. An Internet generation is getting smarter about using searches to find what they want — including on Kiddle — whether it's pictures of breasts or biographies of Queen Victoria, and parents are understandably concerned about how to protect their children from explicit or traumatizing content.

By restricting access to information, the slew of kid-safe browsers, search engines, and monitoring software on the market also makes it hard for kids in need to get help — and they can't always get that help from their parents or teachers

However, "kid-safe search" programs come with a significant problem, aside from larger free speech questions about whether all information should be accessible to those who want to view it. By restricting access to information, the slew of kid-safe browsers, search engines, and monitoring software on the market also makes it hard for kids in need to get help — and they can't always get that help from their parents or teachers, which is what advocates of these kinds of Internet tools recommend (Kiddle, for example, offered this message to those who searched for the above-noted terms: "Please realize that while Kiddle has nothing against the LGBT community, it's hard to guarantee the safety of all the search results for such queries. We recommend that you talk to your parent or guardian about such topics.").

A child who is being molested by a parent can't very well approach her parent for help. A gay child can't ask a teacher about sexuality if she's in a school where that kind of discussion isn't permitted. A child terrified by domestic violence might be too scared to talk to a real-life adult, but she can search "my father hits me" and reach the National Domestic Violence Hotline. These are the kind of very common scenarios that "kid-search searches" often gloss over — for instance, Kiddle has a list of blacklisted sites and keywords, which include things like "rape" and "vagina," both of which might be relevant to children seeking assistance.

And Kiddle is not the only search engine designed to filter results that might be seen by children: Safe Search Kids, for example, automatically redirects users to Google with Safe Search enabled and overrides attempts to turn it off.

Some filtering options are more aggressive: Schools and parents alike apply filtering software and even entire browsers, like BuddyBrowser and KidZui, to prevent searches. NetNanny and Safe Eyes allow parents to closely monitor and restrict access to content. Lots of websites provide information on how to install kid-proofing software, including how to "hack" systems to limit where kids can range, and many schools as well as some parents also make it impossible to download or install software so kids can't circumvent operating system restrictions. The truly dedicated can make it extremely difficult to access information.

Critics note that this is a huge free speech issue, and also one that ultimately harms children by making it harder for them to find information that they need. Ironically, such software can interfere with educational uses of the Internet as well. Children who feel — or are — unsafe need access to resources that will lead them to help, whether it's a suicide hotline, a rape crisis counselor, information about safer sex, or sites for people who are questioning their sexuality. Cutting off access doesn't make these issues go away — but it does leave children more vulnerable, something parents and educators who promote filtering software don't seem to understand. Far from being kid-safe, these tools make many kids patently unsafe.

Already, the editors who oversee Kiddle are responding to the outrage over the site. The admonitory warning that claimed that banned search terms like "transgender" were "bad words" (which only served to shame children searching for help) was changed to a less harsh suggestion that children discuss barred searches with their parents or guardians — something that still implies they were searching for something naughty or forbidden. Finally, the site transitioned to a simple 'Oops, try again!' when a banned search term was entered.

The editors also wisely started expanding their whitelist — now, users can search for things like "bisexual," "transgender," and "gay," but other terms still remained verboten as of Wednesday afternoon, including "sex" and "penis," both of which arguably have a legitimate place in searches children might be making. Kids are curious about sex and sexuality — better to learn about them through age-appropriate means, like resources that the site could be linking to if it would whitelist the term. Likewise, kids might want to know more about, or might be worried about, their anatomy, but be too afraid to ask an adult.

The Internet can be a terrible place, but so can the lives of children. Kids experience rape, abuse, sexual assault, suicidal thoughts, molestation, and domestic violence, and they deserve free and safe access to resources they can use to find help. They may be too afraid or uncertain to go to the adults in their lives, or may know from bitter experience that adults may betray them, making it too dangerous to talk to a parent, guardian, or teacher. Similarly, kids experiencing conflicts with their gender, sexuality, and identity need balanced and helpful resources, rather than piecemeal information that can be more confusing and terrifying than it is helpful, especially in a generation where children are asserting their sexuality and gender identities much earlier in life.

"Protective" programs like Kiddle can hurt all the trans kids out there, the victims of incest, the kids who want to know why they live in such a cruel world and whether they can do anything about it. As a society, we should be speaking out against Internet filtering that targets children, rather than celebrating it. If we want the world to be safer for kids, let's attend to IRL issues like homophobia in schools, and the unacceptable number of children in domestic violence situations instead.

Images: Jay Wennington/ Unsplash; Kiddle