FTC: Explicit content in virtual worlds too easy for minors to see

FTC makes five recommendations to virtual world operators to reduce exposure

The Federal Trade Commission today said minors can access explicit sexual and violent content in 70% of the virtual worlds it reviewed in a congressionally mandated report and urged virtual world operators to make key enhancements aimed at reducing the risk of youth exposure to such content.

The report, The Virtual Worlds and Kids: Mapping the Risks, looked at 27 online virtual worlds -- such as Poptropica, Runescape and Zwinktopia -- divided among those specifically intended for young children, teens and those intended only for adults. The FTC found at least one instance of either sexually or violently explicit content in 19 of the 27 worlds and observed a heavy amount of explicit content in five of the virtual worlds studied. 

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The Commission interpreted Congress's use of the term "explicit" to cover both sexually and violently explicit content. The FTC noted: "Since no settled definition of explicit content exists, and the Congressional request did not provide a definition, the Commission had to develop its own factors for explicit content." So it said it drew its results in part from the rating criteria of the Motion Picture Association of America and the Entertainment Software Rating Board.

According to the FTC, of the 14 virtual worlds in the study that were, by design, open to children under age 13, seven contained no explicit content, six contained a low amount of such content, and one contained a moderate amount. Almost all of the explicit content found in the child-oriented virtual worlds appeared in the form of text posted in chat rooms, on message boards, or in discussion forums, the FTC stated. 

Perhaps not surprisingly, the FTC said it saw a greater amount of explicit content in worlds that were geared towards teens or adults. Twelve of the 13 virtual worlds in this category contained explicit content, with a heavy amount observed in five worlds, a moderate amount in three, and a low amount in four. Half the explicit content found in the teen- and adult-oriented virtual worlds was text-based, while the other half appeared as graphics, occasionally with accompanying audio, the FTC stated.

The FTC noted that most sites have some policy or technology in place to prevent minors from accessing explicit content. The FTC said in particular operators of teen- and adult-oriented virtual worlds rely on community policing measures to enforce conduct policies. Some worlds also employ live moderators to monitor heavily populated areas and help control conduct in those areas. Some worlds use language filters to prevent objectionable language from entering into text-based communications in-world, with limited success, the FTC stated. 

The FTC made five recommendations to virtual world operators to reduce youth exposure to explicit content: 

  • Use more effective age-screening mechanisms to prevent children from registering in adult virtual worlds.
  • Use or enhance age-segregation techniques to make sure that people interact only with others in their age group.
  • Re-examine language filters to ensure that they detect and eliminate messages that violate rules of behavior in virtual worlds.
  • Provide more guidance to community enforcers in virtual worlds so they are better able to review and rate virtual world content, report potential underage users, and report any users who appear to be violating rules of behavior.
  • Employ a staff of specially trained moderators who are equipped to take swift action against rule violations. 

The commission also made these notes to parents: 

  • Despite stated age restrictions, underage children may still access teen- and adult-oriented online virtual worlds by falsifying their ages to evade age-screening mechanisms. Therefore, parents should not overly rely on age-screening mechanisms to keep their children off online virtual worlds.
  • Unlike "old fashioned" video games, today's online virtual worlds center on the premise of real-time communications, and many have integrated social networking tools into their spaces.
  • The worlds the Commission studied permitted a wide array of communication vehicles, including not only the ability to chat by text, but also the ability to instant message, meet privately, voice chat, and communicate via webcams. These communication methods are more difficult for parents to monitor and for worlds to filter.
  • In most non-child-directed online virtual worlds, users create the content that is displayed online; the virtual world operator acts merely as a host to users' own creations. Therefore, it may be quite difficult to gauge the types of content a child may encounter by a mere review of a world's Terms of Service or FAQs.

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Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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