Let’s be clear on this, there are several different classes of users in Second Life, even though each class tends to behave as if they are the only one, or at least, the one in the majority. Most people in Second Life couldn’t care less if teens are around or not, so far as they comply to ToS — meaning that they’re not actively griefing or copying content, for instance, and behave reasonably towards all other residents. That’s what we, after all, expect from everybody — teens are no exception, and shouldn’t be. Talented and creative content developers who exhibit their astonishing builds will very likely have no problem at all with teens visiting them; similarly, a live musician doesn’t care about the age of the audience (unless, well, their songs are particularly rude or with a strong sexual content — but teens buy CDs from Lady Gaga, and listen to them at home, so this argument wouldn’t hold water anyway…). In fact, the majority of what goes on in Second Life — and this is the “majority” as per fact, not per anecdotal evidence — is pretty much innocuous for all ages. So, sure, some avatars show a bit more skin than in real life — how bad is that? Disney movies “for the family” show skin, too, and they’re more than allowed.
The real issue, however, comes from one of the most powerful drives of the economy, and this is what Linden Lab is reluctant to admit: adult content sells, and keeps the economy afloat.
Now “adult content” is a vast, overarching word for a lot of activities that are done in Second Life. It’s not just about Stroker Serpentine’s million-USD-dollar enterprise selling pose balls, or the vast range of kinky outfits that are sold everywhere on the grid, although obviously these are also part of the picture. No, I would say that it’s really more about relationships between adults. They can be as simple as two avatars holding hands watching a beautiful sunset in the most peaceful, child-safe area in Second Life. Nobody wants a teen to unexpectedly drop on them and suddenly exclaim (on voice!): “Mommy, what the hell are you doing??”
That is, indeed, the crux of the question: how do you explain a relationship with a complete stranger to your kids? If you are having the same kind of interaction in MSN (even on a webcam!) on your laptop, at least you’ll know if your kid is physically around, and can take the appropriate precautions. But on Second Life, you don’t know where your kids are. They might even not be allowed to log in to SL and thus have to go to a friend’s place and log in from there… while you’re comfortably enjoying an online adult relation with a “friend”. It’s not even about cheating: that relation might be absolutely legitimate as a single mother turns to the online world in search for a partner (some statistics show that in 2010 one out of four couples will have met online first), or the other way round, of course. But you don’t want your kids to drop on you — not before you feel comfortable enough with your relationship to the point you want to tell them about it. And, so far, they had no way of intruding on your “safe zone”, because SL was adult-only.
Obviously the same might happen in real life (in fact, it happens all the time), if you’re surprised by your kid in an innocent coffee shop where you’re having a romantic chat with your prospective future partner, but don’t want to make a big announcement at home yet. Your kid suddenly entering the very same coffee shop would lead to a disaster. So, well, to avoid those, people turn to the relative safety of virtual worlds (or online chats), specially to those that are adult-only and safe.
There is, of course, the issue about cheating; there is the issue about indulging in fantasies online that you would never dream to admit to your kids. Or your friends’ kids. You certainly don’t want your neighbours’ kids to start talking about what a kinky life you have in-world, and sooner or later, your own kids will hear about it too.
It’s not really about “exposing” teenagers — specially 16 or 17-year-olds — to sexual content. I find it very hard to believe that any parent really thinks that 16-year-olds are naive, except perhaps on Amish communities (and even so, I would not believe it). Even on sexually-repressed Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia, 16/17-year-olds know all about sex, and they have figured out things for ages. Believing otherwise is, well, just fooling yourself — or just assuming a hypocritical stance.
Like some people have often said, it’s not really about pornography in Second Life. If you think that SL has a lot of porn, think again. Ironically as it might sound, I find SL has actually very little adult content compared with the Internet-at-large.
Even if you drop on Zindra, you won’t see scenes of Sodoma and Gomorra on the streets: ironically, the “hot stuff” happens (mostly) behind walls. While almost all adult websites out there, to lure customers in, will show much worse things, even before you click on the button saying “Enter if you’re 18”. And of course nothing prevents young people to click on that button: God will not suddenly be paged and drop some lightning bolt on top of the trespassing kid. While a few websites are filtered out by school and even home firewalls, and some sites take more care when handling minors, most don’t care — just jump to sites on countries that have no such qualms and you’ll get access to pretty much everything if you’re a teen really interested in online porn.
And then there are “quasi-pornographic” materials lurking on the Internet which are even harder to classify. Manga and anime can have quite sexual content, but, since they’re “just cartoons”, they’re considered “art” and usually left completely unprotected. One of my best friends in college, himself a late teen, bought graphic novels from Manara just to drool at the pictures and get excited with the stories. Milo Manara is undoubtedly one of the finest artists in Europe — but he just draws comic books. Very explicit comic books. Around here, you can buy them off the shelves, no matter what your age is, because, well, it’s art.