This is pioneering stuff on the part of the US government. The Federal Trade Commission today sent to Congress its close study of 27 online virtual worlds – 14 for children under 13 and 13 aimed at teens and adults – looking at the level of sexually explicit and violent content and what the VWs were doing to protect children from it. I think it’s important for parents to keep in mind when reading the study or just the highlights here that “content” in virtual worlds means user-generated content (which is why, in “Online Safety 3.0,” we put so much stress on viewing children as stakeholders in their own well-being online and teaching them to be good citizens in their online and offline communities). Here are some key findings:
The report goes into measures these 27 VWs surveyed take to keep minors away from explicit content, including “age screens” designed to keep minors from registering below a site’s minimum age (what the FTC calls “only a threshold measure”); “adults only” sections requiring subscriptions or age verifications (see “‘Red-light district’ makes virtual world safer”); abuse reporting and other flagging of inappropriate content; human moderation; and some filtering technology. “The report recommends that parents and children become better educated about online virtual worlds” and that virtual-world “operators should ensure that they have mechanisms in place to limit youth exposure to explicit content in their online virtual worlds.” In the two pages of Appendix A (of the full, 23-page report + appendices), you’ll find a chart of all the virtual worlds the FTC reviewed. [See also my VW news roundup last week and "200 virtual worlds for kids."]
This is a great start. As purely user-driven media, virtual worlds are a frontier for research on online behavior. The FTC was charged by Congress “merely” with determining the level of harmful content, not behavior – I really think because adults continue to think in a binary, either-or way about extremely fluid environments that are mashups of content and behavior. Where is it really just one or the other, what is “content” in social media, and how do we define “harmful”? We also need to define “virtual worlds.” Some of these properties are largely avatar chat, some are games (with quests), some are worlds with games but not quests in them. Still, we’ve got some great talking points and very useful data to build on.