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.

“Half of these worlds took the additional step of rejecting a child’s immediate attempt to re-register as an age-eligible user from the same computer,” the report says. “Three of the teen- and adult-oriented virtual worlds in which the Commission found a moderate to heavy amount of explicit content had separate ‘adult only’ sections to keep minors from viewing age-inappropriate content; these worlds also employed supplemental age-segregation initiatives to prevent interactions between adults and minors.”

While the rules of conduct for the teen and adult sites with moderate to heavy explicit content did prohibit certain types of sexual, threatening, or abusive material, “they did so in vague terms that provide little guidance to users about specific prohibited conduct. Indeed, the Commission found explicit content in these worlds despite their rules of conduct, a fact that indicates that conduct standards, on their own, are insufficient to stem the creation of or exposure to explicit material.”

Safety recommendations

While many virtual worlds use “age screens”—registering a birth date before entering a site—to keep minors from accessing sites intended for adults, the report says that age screening is “only a threshold measure that operators should take to prevent youth access.”

It recommends that virtual-world operators include separate “adults only” sections, either by subscription or through age verification, to keep minors form viewing inappropriate content, as well as age-segregation initiatives that give users different experiences depending on their birth date.

Many virtual worlds already use community policing measures, such as abuse reporting, flagging, and live moderators, and some use filtering technologies to enforce community standards.

In particular, the FTC makes five recommendations to virtual-world operators to help reduce the risk of 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 report also recommends that parents and children become better educated about online virtual worlds.

Effectiveness of age screening

The study examined sites such as Second Life, Kaneva, There.com, IMVU, and Red Light Center.

Second Life’s age-screening system is unique among the virtual worlds the FTC studied, the report noted, in that Second Life automatically segmented registrants into three age categories based on the date of birth the users first entered during the registration process.

All users registering for the Second Life grid, whether for the adult-oriented Second Life or for Teen Second Life, register at the same URL. Depending on the birth date entered, a user either is rejected (where the age entered is under 13), directed to Teen Second Life (if the age entered is between 13 and 17), or directed to adult Second Life (if the age entered is 18 or older). In the former two cases, a persistent cookie is set correlating to the entered age, giving the user no access to Second Life at all, or access only to Teen Second Life.

Researchers found that IMVU and Kaneva also use several automated techniques to enforce divisions between minors and adults registered in their worlds. Both worlds limit search functions between these two age groups. In addition, Kaneva divides its public spaces into “under 18” and “18-and-older” categories. Minors are not visible “in world” to Kaneva members who are 18 years or older.

IMVU adult users can send messages to minors who are registered as age 13 to 17, and vice versa. However, IMVU does not allow users who are registered as 18 and over to search for users who are registered as age 13 to 17, so they must know an underage user’s avatar name to send him or her a message. For a fee, IMVU offers a voluntary age-verification program whereby adults provide certain items of personal information and are verified as adults, thereby helping verified users establish to other IMVU members that they are engaging with someone whose age is, in fact, the age indicated on the verified user’s profile.

Despite these measures, explicit content is easily accessible in these worlds’ general access areas free of charge.

Second Life was implementing its “Adult Content Initiative” during the study. This initiative has several components. World operators first developed and implemented a three-tiered rating system—PG, Mature, or Adult—to be used to identify content and set individual preferences for Second Life users.

Second Life users who host, conduct, or display content that is sexually explicit or intensely violent, or that depicts illicit drug use, must designate such content as “Adult,” and only users who are payment- or age-verified—”account verified”—may access such content.

To become account verified, users must complete a valid payment, generally through use of a credit card or PayPal, or be age-verified, free of charge, through an arrangement that Second Life has with a third-party age verification vendor.

Second Life will filter search listings so that only account verified users may view adult-oriented “search tags.”

Second Life has created a new adult-oriented portion of its mainland, called “Zindra,” and all adult content previously located elsewhere on the mainland is required to be relocated to Zindra.

Nevertheless, like IMVU and Kaneva, at least during the FTC’s review, explicit content was still easily available free of charge in Second Life, without account verification.


Virtual Worlds and Kids: Mapping the Risks

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