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FTC: Kids can find adult content in virtual worlds

Minors are able to easily view violent and sexually explicit content in virtual worlds, including some geared for children, the federal agency says.

The FTC seems to have discovered something the rest of us already knew. Kids are easily able to access adult content in virtual worlds.

A report released Thursday by the Federal Trade Commission found that minors are exposed to violent and sexually explicit content in online virtual worlds. The congressionally mandated report, "Virtual Worlds and Kids: Mapping the Risks," discovered that while most of the adult content appeared in virtual worlds geared toward teens and adults, some showed up on virtual sites designed for kids. Further, some of the virtual worlds for teens and adults allow or encourage kids to bypass their minimum age requirements.

"It is far too easy for children and young teens to access explicit content in some of these virtual worlds," said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz. "The time is ripe for these companies to grow up and implement better practices to protect kids."

As defined in the report, virtual worlds are sites that combine 3-D environments with social networking where people can play, work, and interact with others through their online avatars. For the study, the FTC examined such worlds as Second Life, Kaneva, Bots, Gaia Online, and Zwinktopia.

In total, the FTC focused on 27 online virtual worlds and checked out sites intended for kids, sites for teens, and sites only for adults. Among all 27 sites, 19 displayed at least one instance of violent or sexually explicit content. A heavy amount of explicit content was found in five sites, a moderate amount in four, and a low amount in 10.

Most of the explicit content was found in the sites geared for teens and adults, with 12 of the 13 virtual worlds in this category displaying violent or sexually explicit text and graphics. Among the 14 virtual worlds designed for children under the age of 13, seven had no explicit content, six contained a low amount, and one offered a moderate amount. Most of the content took the form of text posted in chat rooms or on discussion forums.

In its report, the FTC urges operators of virtual worlds to take more steps to keep explicit content away from kids and teens. The feds also encourage parents to learn more about the virtual worlds that their children frequent.