Saturday, January 02, 2010

Federal Trade Commission releases "Virtual Worlds and Kids..."

Alerted once again by my fine PLN on Twitter, I took the time to read this extensive report and I believe it is so worth sharing that I am herein expending even more attention on a brief review. I hope you will share your thoughts with me either here or at the discussion thread I've started on the SIGVE wiki. The report is entitled "Virtual Worlds and Kids: Mapping the Risks."

One might think that the Federal Trade Commission would have other more pressing topics to pursue than underage exposure to adult materials in virtual worlds, but considering some of the committee's findings I have to commend that body for its efforts here. I think the report is not only accurate assessment of the current state of the field but also balanced and objective beyond reproach. I'm sure we can look forward to further explorations by government agencies considering that:

*"The number of youth participants in online virtual worlds is projected to grow to over 15 million by 9. 2013, with the most significant growth among the pre-teen (ages 3-11) segment of users. See Virtual Worlds News, Teen, Pre-teen Migration to Virtual Worlds On the Rise, supra note 8."

and

*"Virtual worlds consultancy kZero estimates that the number of registered accounts in the virtual 8. worlds sector totaled 579 million globally in the second quarter of 2009. This figure represents an increase of 38.6% from the previous quarter when global registered accounts totaled 417 million."

This report, available online in a 92 page .pdf, is the result of a direct assignment from Congress:"The Joint Explanatory Statement accompanying the FY 2009 Omnibus Appropriations Act (Public 1. Law 111-8, enacted March 11, 2009) directed the Federal Trade Commission to submit a report to the Senate and House Committees on Appropriations regarding “virtual reality web programs.” Specifically, the statement read: Concerns have been raised regarding reports of explicit content that can be easily accessed by minors on increasingly popular virtual reality web programs. The FTC is directed to issue a consumer alert to educate parents on the content that is available to children on virtual reality web programs. In addition, no later than nine months after enactment of this Act, the FTC shall submit a report to the House and Senate Committees on Appropriations discussing the types of content on virtual reality sites and what steps, if any, these sites take to prevent minors from accessing content."

The report itself runs only 34 pages, but I advise the careful reader to take the time to explore the exhaustive endnotes as well. Anyone who has any interest at all in the educational uses of virtual worlds needs more than a passing acquaintance with the information in this document. I would go further: Any parent of a child with access to a computer connected to the internet needs to read this document.

The methodology of the investigation is itself a model for further researchers. An initial survey of virtual worlds yielded 187 possible targets, which were pared down to 30, mostly on the criterion of popularity, based on reported number of unique visits. "Because one of the worlds, Adventure Rock, could not be accessed by the Commission’s researchers, and two other worlds, Webkinz and MyePets, required the purchase of a plush toy for registration, the Commission excluded these worlds from its survey, resulting in a sample of 27 online virtual worlds." Researchers also communicated directly with the hosting companies of six of the worlds, gaining further insight into policies and procedures. Here's a list of all the worlds included in the sample:

9 Dragons1
9dragons.acclaim.com

AQ
www.aq.com

Bots1
bots.acclaim.com

Buildabearville
www.buildabearville.com

Dofus
www.dofus.com/en/

Gaia Online
www.gaiaonline.com/

Habbo
www.habbo.com

Handipoints
handipoints.com

IMVU
www.imvu.com

Kaneva
www.kaneva.com

Maid Marian
maidmarian.com

Meez
www.meez.com

Millsberry
www.millsberry.com

My Diva Doll1
www.mydivadoll.com

Neopets
www.neopets.com

Pixiehollow
pixiehollow.go.com

Poptropica
www.poptropica.com

Red Light Center
www.redlightcenter.com

Runescape
www.runescape.com

Second Life
www.secondlife.com

Secret of the Solstice2
solstice.outspark.com

Stardoll
www.stardoll.com

There
www.there.com

Vivaty
www.vivaty.com

Wind Slayer2
windslayer.outspark.com

YoVille
www.yoville.com

Zwinktopia
www.zwinky.com

Directed to explore for sexually explicit content and violently explicit content for set amounts of time, utilizing any means possible, the researchers did so registered as adults, then registered as teens, and finally registered as children. They recorded their efforts using Camtasia software and in an extensive Access database form, then their findings were replicated by another researcher to ensure a "99.5% accuracy." Findings are reported in text accompanied by charts and tables, with screenshots of registration screens and more.

Again, this is not as much a review as it is an invitation for you to read and understand committee's findings for yourself. That said, I don't think it's a spoiler to share the report's introduction to its concluding recommendations to Congress and the industry:

As reported above, the Commission found very little explicit content on virtual worlds open to children under age 13. The Commission found a greater concentration of explicit content in worlds that permit teens to register, and where teens are likely to congregate. Although some of the teen- and adult-oriented online virtual worlds in which the Commission observed explicit content have taken steps to restrict minors’ access to explicit content, their efforts have not fully succeeded. Virtual world operators can do more to limit youth exposure to explicit content. Given important First Amendment considerations, the Commission supports virtual world operators’ self-regulatory efforts to implement these recommendations.

The report goes on with recommendations that include establishing more effective age and content filtering mechanisms, creating better age-segregating structures, employing full-time inworld moderators with policing tools, and creating better parent and youth education. All good measures, all contributing to the value of this timely and informative report. My own recommendation? Read it!

crossposted from Oh!VirtualLearning!

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