The Federal Trade Commission today issued a report that examines the incidence of
sexually and violently explicit content in online virtual worlds. The congressionally mandated report, “Virtual Worlds and Kids: Mapping the Risks,” urges operators of virtual worlds to take a number of steps to keep explicit content away from children and teens, and recommends that parents familiarize themselves with the virtual worlds their kids visit.
The report analyzes how easily minors can access explicit content in virtual worlds, and the measures virtual world operators take to prevent minors from viewing it. According to the findings, although little explicit content appeared in child-oriented virtual worlds, a moderate to heavy amount appeared in virtual worlds that are designed for teens and adults.
Virtual worlds are popular with children and adults because they blend 3-D environments with online social networking, allowing users to interact in and shape their own online content. Through avatars – digital representations controlled by humans in real time – virtual world users socialize, network, play, or even conduct business in graphics-intensive landscapes using text or voice chat, sounds, gestures, and video. Despite the educational, social, and creative opportunities virtual worlds offer, the FTC’s report found that explicit content exists, free of charge, in online virtual worlds that minors are able to access. In fact, some virtual worlds designed for teens and adults allow – or even encourage – younger children to get around the worlds’ minimum age requirements.
“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.”
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’s report also examines the methods virtual world operators use to prevent minors from accessing explicit content. The report describes age screens designed to keep minors from registering with a birth date below a world’s minimum participation age and states that age screening is only a threshold measure that operators should take to prevent youth access. The report details other important steps virtual world operators take to shield youth from explicit content. These steps include separate “adults only” sections (either by subscription or through age verification) designed to keep minors from viewing age-inappropriate content, and age-segregation initiatives that provide different experiences for users depending on the birth date they enter so that minors can participate and interact in a world better tailored to them. In addition, in order to prohibit unwelcome content and preserve their worlds’ intended environments, many operators use community policing measures, such as abuse reporting, flagging, and live moderators, and some use filtering technologies to enforce their community standards.
The Commission makes five recommendations to virtual world operators to reduce the risk of youth exposure to explicit content:
The report recommends that parents and children become better educated about online virtual worlds, and affirms the FTC’s commitment to ensuring that parents have the information
they need to make informed choices. A consumer alert, Virtual Worlds and Kids: Mapping the Risks, is available at www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/pubs/consumer/alerts/alt038.shtm.
The Commission vote to approve the report was 4-0. The full text of the report can be found at http://www.ftc.gov/os/2009/12/oecd-vwrpt.pdf.
Copies of the report are available from the FTC’s Web site at http://www.ftc.gov and also from the FTC’s Consumer Response Center, Room 130, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., Washington, D.C. 20580. The Federal Trade Commission works for consumers to prevent fraudulent, deceptive, and unfair business practices and to provide information to help spot, stop, and avoid them. To file a complaint in English or Spanish, visit the FTC’s online Complaint Assistant or call 1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357). The FTC enters complaints into Consumer Sentinel, a secure, online database available to more than 1,700 civil and criminal law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and abroad. The FTC’s Web site provides free information on a variety of consumer topics.