Virtual worlds are a red-hot topic these days, probably because of their rapid growth and the US Federal Trade Commission’s report on their content (see “Related links” below). I can think of two more reasons to add: ConnectSafely’s brand-new safety tips for parents (shameless plug, links below) and insights from master virtual-world moderators in a recent 3-part series on the subject at ShapingYouth.org and in a white paper, “How to Moderate Teens and Tweens,” at eModeration, London-based provider of community management in 31 languages.
Three points – one each about moderating kids, tweens, and teens – really leaped out at me as I read these contributions (just a sampler of the insights in them), and I think parents will find them helpful:
1. Two types of virtual-world moderators: In Part 3 of Shaping Youth’s series, eModeration describes how virtual worlds are evolving, as illustrated by moderation techniques: The more traditional silent moderator “stays in the background, blocking offensive material from participants, warning users, defusing confrontation and reacting to abusive or illegal behavior. The second and increasingly popular type is the in-game moderator, who actively participates as a character or avatar … encouraging children to explore and try new things and have as positive experience as possible, but stay safe and secure while doing so.” Gazillion Entertainment’s director of user engagement Izzy Neis describes the former as the “elephant in the corner”; eModeration compares the latter to the fun, engaging host of a kids’ birthday party. I think the latter type – because kid users tend to look up to this cool, fun “older avatar” – presents a tremendous opportunity for modeling civil behavior and good in-world citizenship.
2. Tween VW behavior is as dynamic as the real-world kind. Moderators are finding that, just as tweens move back and forth between children’s play and playing at being adults in the real world, they do the same in virtual worlds. EModeration’s Littleton quotes Neis as saying, “It’s not always one or the other – often tween users balances between the two, depending on how their day went, or what escapism they need, or what reinforcement/acknowledgement they crave. They’re taking the experiences they’ve had, applying imagination and exploring new territory (mainly adult situations).” She says virtual worlds see “the same playground problems kids have every day: bullying, heartache, betrayal, etc.” That’s why it’s just as important, as we say in our VW safety tips, for parents to talk with their kids about what’s going in their virtual worlds as what’s going on at school. But moderation in all things (no pun intended). Kids also need some space. Virtual worlds, Neis says, “provide an outlet and a chance to develop other aspects of their personalities [which] they feel unable to explore during real life for fear of rejection, or sometimes they’re just trying something to try it – an opportunity to fail without physical consequence.”
3. The delicate balance between over- and under-moderating teens: An experienced moderator in the UK, Amy Rountree, told Littleton that “moderating [youth] 16+ communities is about balance.” She says that, if virtual world rules and moderators are too heavy-handed, users go elsewhere. If the moderation’s too easygoing, both the company and its users are at risk. This echoes what we say at ConnectSafely.org about safety on the social Web: If parents are too controlling, kids – who have many workarounds and access points – tend to go “underground” to sites parents may’ve never heard of, to friends’ houses where rules are more lax, to establish alternate “stealth” profiles and accounts parents aren’t aware of, etc., etc., all of which spells even less parental input and guidance. Kids are safer when parents, like moderators, find the balance between “over- and under-moderating” and keep the communication lines open (see also “‘Soft power’ parenting works better“).
Note Tamara Littleton’s bottom line in her white paper: “Our view is that if you [a virtual world company] are inviting teens or tweens into your online space, you are in effect throwing a huge round-the-clock party for them. And what parent in their right mind would send out invitations worldwide, then leave the keys to the liquor cabinet with their 15-year-old and go away for the weekend?”