FTC Report Illustrates the Hard Problem of Keeping Kids Completely Safe in Virtual Worlds

The United States Congress told the Federal Trade Commission in March to study the level of access that minors in virtual worlds have to explicit content. An FTC commission released the results earlier this week, and they generally shows what you’d expect — minors are able to access some explicit content in some virtual worlds, despite various efforts by virtual world companies to stop them.

Notably, the explicit content was mostly user generated text (chats, entries on message boards, etc).

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The study surveyed a “cross-section” of 27 virtual worlds, variously focused on children, teens and adults. It found “at least one instance of either sexually or violently explicit content in 19” of them. The sites, divided between 14 child-focused virtual worlds and 13 teen and adult virtual worlds, included well-known names like Gaia Online, Habbo, IMVU, Meez, Neopets, Runescape, Vivaty, and Zynga’s YoVille. See the tables from the report, below, including May traffic and demographic stats from comScore — and note that none of these sites are nearly as large as say, Facebook, MySpace, or many of the social games that run on them.

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

Here’s the list of the recommendations that the report is giving to virtual worlds:

  • 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.

Ars Technica has a somewhat critical article about the report, highlighting the inherent difficulty in what the FTC recommends. In terms of the access issue, kids can fake being adults and adults can fake being kids. The other, even bigger problem is that most of the problematic content came from kids themselves — not adults and not the virtual worlds.

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The report, despite its aggressive take on the issue, recognizes some limitations. “Given important First Amendment considerations, the Commission supports virtual world operators’ self-regulatory efforts to implement these recommendations.” It also says that kids (and their parents) are responsible for learning how to navigate sites and stay safe.

You can download the PDF of the report, here.

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