- The Washington Times - Monday, December 28, 2009

Are the real world and the cyberworld on a cultural collision course? There was a time when smooching at the drive-in and girlie magazines were parents’ worst nightmares. Times have changed. These days, sex education has replaced gym class and health education. Home economics? Forget about it.

News these days is about the untoward realities of the cyberworld leaving students thinking they have no choice but to kill themselves after being bullied or harassed online or on their cell phones. And sexting — sending sexually explicit text messages or images — which youths use as another form of bullying, quickly has become part of the urban lexicon.

In the real world, parents and teachers can use the V-chip in televisions large and small to keep sexually and violently explicit content at bay. In the virtual world, if parents aren’t vigilant, operators of virtual worlds will look the other way.

And just as tweens, teens and college students get busy with those new Christmas netbooks and PCs, up pops the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) with words of warning.

The FTC recently released a report, “Virtual Worlds and Kids: Mapping the Risks,” which says youths can easily access adult content online through social-networking sites.

For teachers and parents not yet in the know, a brief course: The FTC considers sexually explicit content to include full or partial nudity and sexual acts (including sexual acts with minors). Violently explicit content includes animations involving blood, excessive blood or mutilation, violence against minors or animals, aggressive conflict, or graphic discussions or portrayals of suicide on virtual worlds.

Here’s what the FTC did. It examined 27 virtual sites and found that while most of the adult content appeared in virtual worlds geared for adults and teens, some appeared in sites considered child-oriented. The report gives 10 of the sites a low rating for explicit content; five are rated heavy, and four are moderate. Eight virtual worlds had zero content.

The report urges parents and operators to be more diligent and warns that “some virtual worlds designed for teens and adults allow — or even encourage — younger children to get around the worlds’ minimum age requirements.”

The report includes other warnings for parents:

• Don’t rely on age-screening mechanisms. Despite stated age restrictions, underage children may still access teen- and adult-oriented virtual sites by falsifying their ages to evade age-screening mechanisms.

• Unlike old-fashioned video games, online virtual worlds center on the premise of real-time communications, and many have integrated social networking tools into their spaces.

• Think outside the box. The sites studied by the FTC permitted a wide array of communication vehicles, including not only the ability to chat by text, but also the ability to instant-message, meet privately, voice-chat and communicate via webcams. These communication methods are more difficult for parents to monitor and sites to filter.

• FAQs and terms-of-service policies are not guaranteed firewalls. Users create the content that is displayed online; the site operator acts merely as a host to users’ own creations. It is difficult to gauge the types of content a child may encounter.

The consequences of un-checked social networking, with youths indulging themselves in virtual reality and sexting, are often tragic, as daily newspapers and local newscasts prove with regularity. Sometimes the incidents are a matter of life and death. One of the most widely reported stories in recent months is that of Jessica Logan, an Ohio teen who was taunted relentlessly by other teens who had seen the nude photo she had sexted to her boyfriend. Logan committed suicide (washingtontimes. com/news/ 2009/dec/21/citizen-journalism-teens-death-tied-to-sexting).

Some businesses are trying to be the eyes and ears of parents who aren’t paying attention.

Six Degrees Games, for example, has chosen Crisp Thinking’s NetModerator to guard the tween and teen sports destination Action AllStars against online predators, bullies and other threats in real time. Six Degrees Chief Executive Minard Hamilton said he wants to make sure users can make friends and have fun in a safe environment.

“Predators and bullies are always an issue when dealing with games and virtual worlds targeted toward children,” he said. “NetModerator is making sure our online community is a safe as well as fun environment and providing parents some well-deserved peace of mind as well.”

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