Virtual Worlds and Youth: Accessing Explicit Content

FTC Report Finds Sexually and Violently Explicit Content in Online Virtual Worlds Accessed by Minors

Recommends Best Practices to Shield Children and Teens

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.

FTC Report Finds Sexually and Violently Explicit Content in Online Virtual Worlds Accessed by Minors

HEEEEEEEEEEEEEERRRRRRRREEEEEEEEEEEEE WE GOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

Okay, for as much as I would love (and you know I would) to ramble ramble ramble about my opinions on this piece, I am going to stay MUM.

Why, you ask? Well, because according to engageexpo.com, I am (and very happily so) speaking on this VERY topic with Phyllis Marcus, who was commissioned by the FTC to research and report on youth and virtual worlds.

Safety in Online Worlds: How the Federal Trade Commission Sees It
In March of 2009, Congress mandated that the Federal Trade Commission study the types of content available in online virtual worlds — paying close attention to explicit sexual and violent content — and the mechanisms those worlds use to manage access by minors. In this unique session, the Commission’s senior most attorney assigned to the 2009 Virtual Worlds Report to Congress will present results and discuss the agency’s recommendations for strengthening access controls to virtual worlds while allowing free expression to flourish online. This first-ever analysis of virtual worlds by the FTC will be discussed by senior attorney Phyllis H. Marcus who heads the Commission’s children’s privacy program and is responsible for enforcing the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). Marcus expects this session to be the first detailed public reveal of her division’s nine-month study of virtual world content. She will present data, offer recommendations, and participate in a lively one-on-one interview with virtual world child safety advocate and online community activist Izzy Neis.
Phyllis H. Marcus, senior attorney, Div of Advertising Practices, FTC’s COPPA lead
Izzy Neis, Senior Community Safety Lead, Gazillion Entertainment

http://www.engageexpo.com/ny2010/schedule/track2.html

Score, right? Right. Couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity :)

I’m looking forward to this, especially after reading the article on the FTC page, and subsequently skimming through the document while printing (it’s a relatively good sized print, fyi).

I’ve never been shy to discuss the social (and sometimes sexual) exploration of youth in free, identity-less (or identity-filled) web environments – from Language play in phrases to bumping to sexting to warplay.  Playgrounds can be a very confusing/odd place for those who do not understand or are not a part of the intricate socialization patterns and learning curve.  And even for those of us who DO understand these same things, it’s still nerve-wrecking and frightening to behold (don’t even get me started on my 13 year old cousin’s behavior on facebook).  But, we react that way because we MUST.  It’s the elder’s duty to help guide and educate the young.  But, that’s not always enough (this doesn’t mean stop, it just means, more is needed).

We cannot expect kids to just inherently know NOT to behave certain ways – especially if that behavior or action can illicit some sort of euphoria or adrenaline rush.  They don’t learn “No, don’t do that” through osmosis.  Fire = bright & warm & pretty & powerful, but you don’t know it hurts until you touch it… you could listen to your folks who say “don’t touch the fire, it burns”, but the curiosity will always be there because you don’t precisely understand the magnitude of “it burns”.

Naturally, someone has to say it – NO, don’t do that.  And when youth refuse to listen (and when they decide to touch the fire), we have to be there to guide, educate, and then PICK THEM UP once they learn their lessons, or after they suffer the consequences… and then, encourage them to share their lessons with others – peer mentorship.

Also, as businesses we need to EMPLOY WELL EQUIPPED, HIGHLY CAPABLE, HIGHLY TRAINED MODERATORS & COMMUNITY MANAGEMENT STAFF… and give them time to DO THE JOB RIGHT.

Moderation is expensive. It just is… Before you even contemplate the idea of “moderation” and how to lower the cost for a teen & younger site – companies really, truly need to accept it.  Say it out loud. Do a little jig. Throw a party. Make a badge and wear it everyone “YOUTH MODERATION AND ONLINE COMMUNITIES ARE EXPENSIVE”, and then swallow that pain.  NO amount of cheating  or pinching the system is going to replace the expense without putting your audience or your brand at risk, UNLESS you employ full restrictions. Full. Restrictions. As in, no UGC – this includes user created avatarnames/usernames, open or filtered or dictionary chat, no pictures, or uploads, no fan fiction, no forums, no blog posts, videos, podcasts, art, nothing. Kinda takes the community out of community, doesn’t it? Yep – remember that jig you did and that badge you wore… there’s your reason.

If a user can type or upload and submit – that’s UGC, and it needs moderation before it ever appears on any live site.

User Generated Content is a privilege for your audience, but also a privilege for your site/brand/ip/experience as a company.  With privilege comes someone else’s responsibility, and that lies with the company to offer opportunity.  Think about it ;)

Anyway… take a look at the FTC article (link above) and follow the white link rabbit to the pdf itself.  Happy reading!!

Annnnnnnnnd, if you’re going to be in attendance for Engage Expo on February 16th & 17th in New York City, please bring some of your lovely and oh-so-brazilliant questions to the 3:30-4:30 chat on Weds the 17th.  I would love to see your smiling faces and bask in your question-filled glory. :D

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