This is a story about Mary and the Bear. And the FTC. And a paper entitled Virtual Parentalism.
By way of background, Washington & Lee University Law School (where I teach) hosted a symposium entitled Protecting Virtual Playgrounds: Children, Law, and Play Online about a year ago. At that time, it seemed pretty likely that Congress would soon begin thinking about regulating virtual worlds in an attempt to protect children. Sure enough, as TLF’s Adam Thierer notes here in a Metanomics segment, the FTC was asked in an appropriations bill to produce a report concerning children’s access to adult materials in virtual worlds. We got lucky—the papers produced by the symposiasts were ready in time to influence (one always hopes) the debate.
The motivation for the paper was simple: I love playing virtual worlds with my daughters, who are avid explorers of the medium. I wouldn’t consider letting them do this without pretty serious parental supervision, so instead I went with them, joining them in their virtual world adventures. Here’s me talking about it: How Parents can Connect with their Children in Virtual Worlds.
As I began to explore in greater depth, however, it became clear that parents’ involvement in virtual worlds is not a given. The trend is toward segregating children and adults into separate virtual worlds. Thus, my paper, which I have posted for your convenience on SSRN here (Virtual Parentalism), works out some of the dangers replacing parents with parentalist regulation in virtual worlds. It makes several broad points, which I hope to discuss at greater length over a series of blog posts here. The first, and most important, is that there is simply no substitute for parental involvement in children’s activities in virtual worlds. “Digital daycare,” or farming parental duties out to companies that run such worlds, isn’t a satisfactory solution—the companies certainly don’t want to be deemed in loco parentis, and the parents don’t want that either. But the current regulatory climate seems to be tipping—unfortunately—toward imposing mandates on companies (or, worse, imposing criminal liability on unwitting adults). My concern is that this approach will not increase child protection significantly, but will instead cause responsible adults to segregate themselves from children. The second broad point is that, as on the Internet broadly, although Congress may not limit discourse online to those conversations fit for children, parental self-help facilitated by industry can both actually help children and help fend off state regulation.