FTC: Virtual worlds pose real threat to minors

Virtual worlds like Second Life offer educational benefits, but also adult content.
Virtual worlds like Second Life offer educational benefits, but also adult content.

Minors are able to access explicit content in virtual worlds without much difficulty, and the operators of those virtual worlds should take steps to keep that content away from children and teenagers, according to a new report from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

“Virtual Worlds and Kids: Mapping the Risks,” also urges parents to familiarize themselves with the virtual worlds their children visit.

According to the findings, although little explicit content appears in child-oriented virtual worlds, virtual worlds aimed at teenagers and adults contained a moderate to heavy amount of explicit content.

“It is far too easy for children and young teens to access explicit content in some of these virtual worlds,” said Jon Leibowitz, FTC chairman. “The time is ripe for these companies to grow up and implement better practices to protect kids.”

The report analyzes how easily minors can access explicit content in virtual worlds, and it examines the measures that virtual-world operators already take to prevent minors from viewing such content.

It considered sexually explicit content to include sexual references, full or partial nudity, sexual acts (including sexual acts with minors), and violent sexual behavior. Violently explicit content includes animations involving blood, excessive blood or mutilation, violence against minors or animals, aggressive conflict, or graphic discussions or portrayals of suicide.

Virtual worlds are popular with adults and children because they blend three-dimensional environments with online social networking. Virtual worlds like Second Life are gaining popularity in schools as well, where educators are using them for things such as distance learning.

“In fact, some virtual worlds designed for teens and adults allow—or even encourage—younger children to get around the worlds’ minimum age requirements,” the report says.

The FTC surveyed 27 online virtual worlds, including those specifically intended for young children, those designed to appeal to teenagers, and worlds intended only for adults. The report found at least one instance of either sexually or violently explicit content in 19 of the 27 worlds. Five of the virtual worlds examined showed a heavy amount of explicit content, four contained a moderate amount, and a low amount appeared in the remaining 10 worlds in which explicit content was found.

During the study, FTC researchers registered in each virtual world as adults, teenagers, and children, and they created video recordings of each world’s content. Researchers then examined those video recordings and documented instances of sexually or violently explicit content.

Fourteen of the virtual worlds in the study were designed to be open to children under age 13. Seven contained no explicit content, six contained a low amount, and one contained a moderate amount of explicit content. Almost all of the explicit content found in the child-oriented virtual worlds occurred in chat rooms, on message boards, or in discussion forums.

The FTC observed a larger amount of explicit content in worlds geared toward teens or adults. Twelve of the 13 virtual worlds in this category contained explicit content—five had a heavy amount, three contained a moderate amount, and four had a low amount. Half of the explicit content in both the teen and adult virtual worlds was text-based, and the other half appeared as graphics, sometimes with accompanying audio.

For those eight teen and adult sites that contained moderate to heavy violent or sexual content, most employed age-screening mechanisms to keep minors with a birth date below the minimum participation age from registering.

Laura Ascione
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