FTC: Virtual Worlds Offer Real Explicit Content to Minors

A congressionally-mandated Federal Trade Commission (FTC) report looks into the availability of sexually and violently explicit content in online worlds to minors.

Virtual Worlds and Kids: Mapping the Risks examined 27 virtual online worlds, including Second Life, Build A Bearville, IMVU, Neopets, Runescape, There and YoVille. Selected worlds investigated ran the gamut from those intended for kids to those aimed at adults only.

At least one instance of sexually or violently explicit content was found in 19 of the 27 virtual worlds, with five labeled as having a “heavy” amount of explicit content, four containing a “moderate” amount, while a “low” amount was found in 10 virtual worlds.

Kid-oriented (designed for children ages 13 and under) virtual worlds fared a little better, with seven featuring no explicit content, six featuring a “low” amount and a single world labeled as having “moderate” explicit content.

The report also examined the ways in which virtual worlds designed for older teens or adults kept out younger children. It was found that “most” worlds used an age-screening mechanism tied to a birth date entered in the registration process and half of these worlds did not accept kids who re-registered on the same computer using a modified birth date.

The Commission recommended five steps for virtual world operators to take in order to limit the exposure of kids to explicit content:

  • Ensuring that the age-screening mechanisms virtual world operators employ do not encourage underage registration;

  • Implementing or strengthening age-segregation techniques to help ensure that minors and adults interact only with their peers and view only age-appropriate material;

  • Re-examining the strength of language filters to ensure that such filters detect and eliminate communications that violate online virtual worlds’ conduct standards;

  • Providing greater guidance to community enforcers in online virtual worlds so that they are better equipped to: self-police virtual worlds by reviewing and rating online content; report the presence of potential underage users; and comment on users who otherwise appear to be violating a world’s terms of behavior; and,

  • Employing a staff of specially trained moderators whose presence is well known in-world and who are equipped to take swift action against conduct violations.

What defines explicit? The Commission developed its own factors, looking to Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) Entertainment Software Ratings Board (ESRB) rating criteria.

The full report, in PDF form, can be grabbed here.

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