Why Internet Filters Don’t Work (Part 1)

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Getting an internet filter like Covenant Eyes or Safe Eyes is usually a core component of advice Christians give to help people who want to stop looking at pornography. It’s easy to see why. I’ve often heard it said that having unfiltered internet is like having a unlocked closet in your house that’s full of dirty magazines. And it’s considered a necessity in popular books on the topic. Why not limit access to something truly destructive?

But the unfortunate reality is that people who have filters view pornography about as often as people who do not have filters, according to a recent study. You don’t have to take the study’s word for it, though. Ask your friends or kids (or yourself) if it works. My experience is that buying filtering software does not usually do what people hope it will do.

Here’s a little bit of why they don’t work:

1. They don’t cover every computer a person has access to. The study referenced about suggests that to protect one person from pornography would require locking down dozens of computers. There’s always the computer at work, at your grandparents’, or at your friend’s house.

2. They aren’t perfect. Things still get through good filters. And there’s evidence that an intermittent reward is even more addicting than a guaranteed one. The chance that you’ll find something explicit may be a more sure path to bondage than the certainty that you will find something. (This is part of how gambling addiction works).

3. Lots of porn isn’t “porn.” I know many men and women who actually do not like standard pornography. It feels too dirty and predictable. For them, the suggestion, the hint, tease, the fantasy–all this forms the core of the allure, and this is better done through stories and “safe for work” pictures. Christ’s words speak even to the lustful gaze (Mt 5:28). 

4. It becomes a game to find explicit material that the filter doesn’t flag. Part of the allure of explicit material online is the search. It takes a person away from the dullness of life and the scattered but constant responsibilities, and takes you to a world where your mission is clear and your strategy is well-practiced.  

5. They create a false sense of purity. When you haven’t technically looked at pornography (in the event that the filter works for you), it can create the feeling that things have changed. You have 30 days “clean.” But then there are endless ways to feed the inner demand for sexual material and fantasy.  

This may be discouraging to read, especially if you are a person who helps others with this issue. You’re saying my advice doesn’t work? But my suspicion is that what I’m sharing will be a relief to the struggler. If you’ve tried all the strategies and plans and still come up short, this can be incredibly discouraging. But if you begin to understand that the helps available are only helps, and that there are more foundational matters* to address, you begin to understand that you are not a special case. The common struggle really is this hard. 

If it is “out of the heart” that adultery comes, then the cure has to go to the source (Mt. 15:19).

In our next post, I’ll share a little bit of why I sometimes still recommend internet filters.

*I address some of these matters in Emotions and Sexual Escape: Reframing the Rescue (Brad Hambrick has posted a brief reflection on it for free here).

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