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When virtual worlds collide

By Nicola Fletcher

Last week, the Federal Trade Commission confirmed what most of us already knew – it's very easy for kids to get access to adult material on the web. This less-than-surprising conclusion came courtesy of a Congressionally-mandated report titled "Virtual Worlds and Kids: Mapping the Risks".

Virtual worlds – sites where individuals can adopt an online persona (or avatar) and interact with others – have exploded in the last two years. In the young kids market, this dramatic growth has been spearheaded by Club Penguin and Webkinz, although oddly enough, those two sites weren't included in the FTC's in-depth study.

Instead, the FTC chose an eclectic mix of 27 virtual worlds covering all ages, including some that are clearly intended for an adults-only audience. As far as a younger audience is concerned, the selection included such popular sites as Neopets, Buildabearville and Poptropica.

In one respect, the report was reassuring. Although the adult-targeting sites and a few of the teen sites contained a certain amount of sexually explicit and violent content, the kid-targeted sites were mostly problem-free. In an admittedly small sample, the FTC found that out of the 14 virtual worlds that were open to children under the age of 13, only one contained a moderate amount of explicit content.

It was a different story in the teen-orientated virtual worlds. Of the 13 teen sites surveyed, 12 contained explicit content – with five of them classified as having "a heavy amount of explicit content". As is often the case in virtual worlds, most of the explicit content was text-based, i.e. originating in chat rooms.

Perhaps of greater overall concern were the registration procedures – or lack thereof – for the adult and teen virtual worlds that did contain explicit content. Most employed age-screening mechanisms to prevent minors from registering with a birth date below the minimum participation age. However, in half of the explicit sites, rejected users were allowed to immediately re-register from the same computer using a different age.

The report points out that, because of First Amendment issues, there is a limit to what Congress or the courts can impose in terms of content restrictions. Instead, the emphasis is on self-regulation, with the Commission encouraging greater use of content filters, trained moderators and community policing.

But at the end of the day, the real responsibility lies with parents. As the versatility of the web grows and every site of interest to young kids becomes a virtual playground, it's becoming ever-easier to stumble across inappropriate material either by accident or by choice. Parental guidelines, supervision and vigilance are the most effective ways to fight back.          

Comment by DR EITAN SCHWARZ, posted 12/16/2009, 2:37 PM:

I agree. But parents are responsible not just for nay saying and filtering but for actually creating a nutritious and beneficial media diet, where entertainment is a legitimate nutrient but merely a desert. Other ingredients must include value education, family relationships, socialization, and education enrichment
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