FTC Report on Kids and Virtual Worlds

by on December 10, 2009 · 29 comments

This morning the Federal Trade Commission released its report on kids and virtual worlds.  You can read the report, entitled Virtual Worlds and Kids: Mapping the Risks, here.  (I’ve posted similar thoughts over at Terra Nova, apologies for the cross-post).

What initially strikes me about the report is the distance between how the report’s being billed and what it actually says.  The billing of the report—and thus the likely media tagline—is that the “FTC Report Finds Sexually and Violently Explicit Content in Online Virtual Worlds Accessed by Minors.”  But a more accurate statement would be “FTC Report Finds Surprisingly Little Sexually and Violently Explicit Content in Online Virtual Worlds Accessed by Minors, Especially Compared to What Minors Can Find on the Internet.”

The Commission found at least one (really? that’s all?) instance of explicitly violent OR sexual content in a significant percentage of the virtual worlds it examined—and that includes user chat, but in general it didn’t find many such instances per world.  So to be counted in the study as a virtual world that contains explicit violent or sexual content, the researchers just had to find one instance of chat in which someone said something violent or sexually oriented (which of course includes the scatalogical as well as the sexual).  The point is, it appears to me that they went looking for anything and didn’t find much.  Far from being seen as an indictment of virtual worlds as dangerous for kids, this seems to me to be quite positive for virtual worlds, especially as compared to the internet at large.  I’m relying on the following language from the report:

Despite this seemingly high statistic [the Commission found at least one instance of sexually or violently explicit content in 19 out of 27 worlds], the Commission found very little explicit content in most of the virtual worlds surveyed, when viewed by the actual incidence of such content.

And:

Of [the 14 virtual worlds open to children under 13], the Commission found at least one instance of explicit content on seven of them.  Significantly, however, with the exception of one world, Bots, all of the explicit content observed in the child-oriented worlds occurred when the Commission’s researchers visited those worlds as teen or adult registrants, not when visiting the worlds as children under age 13.

I think the study said some interesting things, and there is some strong analysis, but the reception the report will get is, I bet, far removed from what the report actually says.

  • http://www.techliberation.com Adam Thierer

    Good post, Josh. I think the other thing worth mentioning here is that the report says “most of the explicit content observed was text-based and found in chat rooms, message boards, and discussion forums.” In fact, it constituted 92.5% of the “explicit content” the agency found in child-oriented virtual worlds.

    But here's what I'm still searching for in the report and cannot find.. What do we know about that smaller percentage of “explicit content” identified in virtual worlds that was of a graphical nature (that is, non-textual)? Unless I am missing something, the report never tells us. This is important. Are we talking about fleeting virtual nudity because of a scantily-clad minotaur, or were they something really problematic, like virtual bestiality, virtual beheadings or virtual cross-burnings? I fear some people (especially congressional policymakers) will imagine the worst-case scenarios when we do not know what these “incidents” entail.

  • http://techliberation.com/author/berinszoka/ Berin Szoka

    The other interesting point here, Josh, is that if the vast preponderance of this “explicit” content is textual, it is therefore also easier for parents to filter or block according to their own preferences, because algorithmic parsing of text is a relatively simple matter, compared to the much more difficult problem of trying to filter video or images, which usually requires some sort of metadata to filter easily. So as you suggested in your Virtual Parentalism paper, the better alternative to sweeping government content regulation here would be to empower parents to control not just whether their kids have access to virtual worlds, but what they can do and see in-game.

  • http://techliberation.com/author/berinszoka/ Berin Szoka

    The other interesting point here, Josh, is that if the vast preponderance of this “explicit” content is textual, it is therefore also easier for parents to filter or block according to their own preferences, because algorithmic parsing of text is a relatively simple matter, compared to the much more difficult problem of trying to filter video or images, which usually requires some sort of metadata to filter easily. So as you suggested in your Virtual Parentalism paper, the better alternative to sweeping government content regulation here would be to empower parents to control not just whether their kids have access to virtual worlds, but what they can do and see in-game.

  • Joshua Fairfield

    Yes, and this raises one other important point. The argument that the government can constitutionally restrict explicit content in virtual worlds seems to me to rest in very large part on the idea that the activity constitutes conduct, not speech. But this 92.5% figure puts paid to that idea. Nine-tenths of what the report deems “explicit content” is not conduct, it's not even expressive conduct (like an erotic dance at a Second Life strip club), it's written text.

  • http://www.techliberation.com Adam Thierer

    Good post, Josh. I think the other thing worth mentioning here is that the report says “most of the explicit content observed was text-based and found in chat rooms, message boards, and discussion forums.” In fact, it constituted 92.5% of the “explicit content” the agency found in child-oriented virtual worlds.

    But here's what I'm still searching for in the report and cannot find.. What do we know about that smaller percentage of “explicit content” identified in virtual worlds that was of a graphical nature (that is, non-textual)? Unless I am missing something, the report never tells us. This is important. Are we talking about fleeting virtual nudity because of a scantily-clad minotaur, or were they something really problematic, like virtual bestiality, virtual beheadings or virtual cross-burnings? I fear some people (especially congressional policymakers) will imagine the worst-case scenarios when we do not know what these “incidents” entail.

  • http://techliberation.com/author/berinszoka/ Berin Szoka

    The other interesting point here, Josh, is that if the vast preponderance of this “explicit” content is textual, it is therefore also easier for parents to filter or block according to their own preferences, because algorithmic parsing of text is a relatively simple matter, compared to the much more difficult problem of trying to filter video or images, which usually requires some sort of metadata to filter easily. So as you suggested in your Virtual Parentalism paper, the better alternative to sweeping government content regulation here would be to empower parents to control not just whether their kids have access to virtual worlds, but what they can do and see in-game.

  • Joshua Fairfield

    Yes, and this raises one other important point. The argument that the government can constitutionally restrict explicit content in virtual worlds seems to me to rest in very large part on the idea that the activity constitutes conduct, not speech. But this 92.5% figure puts paid to that idea. Nine-tenths of what the report deems “explicit content” is not conduct, it's not even expressive conduct (like an erotic dance at a Second Life strip club), it's written text.

  • Pingback: FTC goes looking for sex and violence in virtual worlds, doesn’t find much » Copper Robot

  • http://www.mimogames.com/ Mimo

    There is no doubt there are issues with virtual worlds for kids. I do find it puzzling that they spent very little time and looked and very few virtual worlds for kids. I guess you can take that either way. Either they didn't have to look too hard to find issues or…

    Club Penguin Cheats

    Kids Virtual Worlds

  • http://www.mimogames.com/ Mimo

    There is no doubt there are issues with virtual worlds for kids. I do find it puzzling that they spent very little time and looked and very few virtual worlds for kids. I guess you can take that either way. Either they didn't have to look too hard to find issues or…

    Club Penguin Cheats

    Kids Virtual Worlds

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