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FTC Study Finds "Explicit Sexual Content" in Teen, Kids Virtual Worlds

Virtual Worlds News
December 10, 2009

Federal-trade-commission-ftc-logo Today, the Federal Trade Commission released the results of a congressionally mandated report looking into incidence of sexually and violently explicit content in online virtual worlds. Its Virtual Worlds and Kids: Mapping the Risks study, a nine-month investigation led by FTC attorney Phyllis H. Marcus, was critical but did offer recommendations to virtual world operators.

The FTC found that despite the "educational, social, and creative opportunities" virtual worlds offer, explicit sexual content exists "free of charge, in online virtual worlds that minors are able to access." Virtual worlds which the study observed included Second Life, Habbo, IMVU, Meez, Kaneva, Red Light Center, and Neopets.

The study went on to clarify findings, saying that some virtual worlds designed for teens and adults "allow -- or even encourage -- younger children to get around the worlds’ minimum age requirements."

In response to the report's findings, FTC chairman Jon Leibowitz was himself explicit. In a statement accompanying the report's release he said, "It is far too easy for children and young teens to access explicit content in some of these virtual worlds...The time is ripe for these companies to grow up and implement better practices to protect kids."

The commission elaborated on the study in a statement today as follows:

The FTC surveyed 27 online virtual worlds – including those specifically intended for young children, worlds that appealed to teens, and worlds intended only for adults. The FTC found at least one instance of either sexually or violently explicit content in 19 of the 27 worlds. The FTC observed a heavy amount of explicit content in five of the virtual worlds studied, a moderate amount in four worlds, and only a low amount in the remaining 10 worlds in which explicit content was found.

Of the 14 virtual worlds in the FTC’s 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 Commission observed 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 worlds, and a low amount in four worlds. 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 commission then made five recommendations to virtual world operators to "reduce the risk of youth exposure to explicit content," which were:

1. Use more effective age-screening mechanisms to prevent children from registering in adult virtual worlds;

2. Use or enhance age-segregation techniques to make sure that people interact only with others in their age group;

3. Re-examine language filters to ensure that they detect and eliminate messages that violate rules of behavior in virtual worlds;

4. 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; and

5. Employ a staff of specially trained moderators who are equipped to take swift action against rule violations.

[update] Speaking with Marcus today after the report was issued, she said "we definitely see great promise in online virtual worlds." Marcus emphasized that the study's researchers "took great care to mention the educational, social, and creative opportunities [virtual worlds] offer to children." Clarifying further, she said "our recommendations set forth some practices that virtual worlds can use to shore up their terms and conditions and ensure that their spaces preserve and reflect the values the site operators mean for the spaces to be."

When reminded of former FTC Chairman Newton Minow, who in 1961 delivered his scathing commentary on the then-new medium of television, saying in part that "when television is good, nothing ... is better," but when television is bad, it can be a "a vast wasteland," Marcus reflected on any comparison to virtual worlds. "No, not a wasteland." she said, "but just a reminder that all is not rosy in virtual worlds." [end update]

The Commission vote to approve the report was 4-0.

The complete study has been posted on the FTC site here.





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