Special Report

Virtually Innocent

Online worlds are riskier for kids than we realize.

By 3.29.10

Several months ago, at the request of Congress, the Federal Trade Commission released a report explaining the risks children face when they play in virtual worlds. Virtual worlds, a quickly expanding market of online playgrounds, combine glitzy three-dimensional environments with social networking. Basically, users can lazily sit behind their computers, but still interact, communicate, and play with each other in these worlds via their avatars, cartoonized representations of themselves. Some of the games they can play, parents may be surprised to learn, push the boundaries of Larry Flynt's wildest dreams.

Virtual worlds took off in 2007, with sites like the Disney-owned Club Penguin and the adult-oriented Second Life leading the charge. According to KZero Worldswide, one of several virtual worlds consultancies that have emerged in recent years, in 2009, an estimated 150 worlds were either live or in development, bringing in about $1.3 billion in revenue. In the next two years, an estimated 900 virtual worlds will hit the market, generating $9 billion in revenue. The numbers of users are growing just as fast, with kids lining up as the dominant consumers of these "metaverses," as they're called. Between the first and third quarter of 2009, KZero calculates that registered accounts in these worlds spiked 60 percent, from 419 to over 671 million -- with over half of the accounts belonging to kids aged 10-15.

The social implications of this phenomenon aside, the numbers are shocking. So is the nature of the content that users can access. In its report, the FTC found that 70 percent of the worlds it reviewed contained some form of sexually explicit or violent material. Though the report mostly looked at explicit material in children's virtual worlds, it did not focus on the most threatening material that children can access -- material in adult virtual worlds, where minors are banned. There, a child can lie about his age and personal information, sneak in, and see and participate in acts that would make a locker room full of sweaty Duke lacrosse players blush.

Consider Red Light Center, a world meant for adults modeled after the "Red Light District" in Amsterdam. There, stiletto-heeled, corset-clad women and shirtless tattooed men can hobnob in bath houses, "Gay Alley," hotel rooms, night clubs, or any number of places. Users can also pay a modest fee to get their virtual freak on and are even given an option to meet in the real world, if they want. The site's catch phrase, after all, is "EXPAND your fantasy." It's like a virtual sex trade. In May 2009, about 15 percent of unique visitors to the Red Light Center were under the age of 18.

In another virtual world, the now defunct Sims Online, minors actually were participating in a sex ring. One girl, acting as a cyber-madam, prostituted other girls to cyber Johns at the going rate of $50 per encounter.

Then, there's the lively Second Life, a world with infinite gaming possibilities, but for adults only. On the one hand, users can attend a Smithsonian exhibit, visit a park, or participate in border patrol simulations. On the other, users can pay modestly to customize their avatars with genitalia and studded torture toys, and proceed to the populated sex clubs. If that's rousing, avatars can approach each other, strike a pose with the click of a mouse, and have virtual sex.

In one case in 2008, a British journalist (who disguised himself as a young girl avatar) ventured into a Second Life playground. Eventually, an adult male avatar approached the young girl and lured her first into his home, and then into his bedroom. He asked her to take her clothes off, explaining that he likes young girls in the real world. This occurred despite the fact that Second Life banned age-based role-playing several years ago. Another example: though public nudity is banned in Second Life, avatars can and have appeared naked publicly.

For its part, Second Life has segregated adult content away from regular content, so that users with G-rated interests, like art museums, do not have to see MA-rated material, like sex shops. Meantime, children who register as 13- to 17-year-olds are redirected from Second Life to Teen Second Life, a PG-rated virtual world. But what about minors who lie about their age, seeking access to the adult portions of Second Life? Ken Dreifach, a lawyer at Linden Lab, which operates Second Life, says that users must verify detailed age and account information before entering adult areas. Still, he admits that the screening process cannot, with certainty, keep all children who lie away.So what if an adult in Second Life is looking for sex and approaches what he thinks is another adult avatar, when in actuality a minor is controlling the avatar? Adults may not know that they, via their avatars, are diddling children, but Robin Fretwell Wilson, a professor at Washington and Lee specializing in juvenile law, argues that adults are liable just the same. Wilson thinks "Having sex with a minor, via its avatar, is still sexual assault." Legal expert Joshua Fairfield, however, cautions against "moral panic… every technology will be used and misused by a small segment of the population."

Whether you agree with Wilson or Fairfield, it's clear that children are naturally interested in sex. According to Symantec, a security company, among the top words children search online, sex ranks fourth and porn ranks sixth. Virtual worlds give kids a new interactive way to access sex and sexual content. But what's the big deal?

Research has shown that the line between virtual and factual reality is beginning to blur with the advent of these online playgrounds. Emotionally, users admit to finding more meaning and enrichment from their virtual friends and experiences than their real-world friends, as sad as that is. And physically, gadgets are being designed so that the user feels what his avatar feels in its world, like a pound on the chest from being punched. What's next -- a virtual vibrator? Actually, yes -- "teledildonic" devices exist, that, when connected to a computer, bring a whole new level of reality to an avatar's virtual sex.

Once upon a time, predators lurking in chat room and online porn were a parent's worst nightmare. These days, children can lose their virtual virginity to an adult hooked up to a teledildonic device. With ineffective age screening as the only barrier to some of these virtual worlds, parental monitoring may be the only safeguard for a sexually curious 14-year old child.

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About the Author

Emily Esfahani Smith, an editor at the new conservative blog Ricochet.com, is also managing editor of the Hoover Institution journal Defining Ideas.