Habbo Hotel: Let’s not kid ourselves that ‘the internet’ is our biggest problem
Much has been made of the righteous Channel Four News investigation into online game Habbo Hotel. A Channel Four producer signed up to the site describing herself as an eleven year old, and found that she was being inappropriately approached by people on the site. She was apparently asked if she would chat elsewhere, go on webcam, and ‘how far’ she would go. Naturally, this is disturbing and has provoked outrage – to the extent that a Habbo Hotel investor has dropped its stake in Habbo’s owner, Sulake.
Unfortunately, Habbo Hotel is undoubtedly not the only ‘social’ or gaming website where this happens. Where there is a crowd of youngsters online, there is bound to be an attraction for people who want to exploit them – whether they are their peers, or much older. It’s somewhat of an unintentional curse of the development of the online world that it’s difficult to ascertain whether or not someone is who they say they are. Anyone could sign up to any website and claim to be a 15 year old boy or girl, and no one would really know. And in reality, until we are all given internet ‘passports’ (please no!) there will never be a solution to the fact that anonymity comes with the territory. But let’s not kid ourselves that ‘the internet’ is to blame, or that this is a new phenomenon. It has simply made it much easier for predators to find and access their victims.
The first line many will take on this is that there has to be some kind of moderation, or a way of filtering out this information from young children or those in their early teens. There are already functions in place for people who feel threatened or otherwise unsafe on Habbo Hotel. As with most online forums and spaces where you interact with others, there’s a mute function, there are moderators, and there are ways of reporting other users.
A community is only as strong as the sum of its members, though – and the question I would ask is: why are these people not being reported?
It strikes me as interesting that the producer posed as an eleven year old girl. For starters, Habbo Hotel is designed for 13 year olds upwards – why did the moderators allow that account to be created and continue to be used? Secondly, this signals to me exactly the kind of approach we need to be taking when it comes to keeping kids safe online. While I haven’t played Habbo as an eleven year old boy, I have a sneaking suspicion that their experience may be slightly different to that of an eleven year old girl.
Online grooming and nastiness will always be around – you don’t need to look very far to find examples of adults abusing other adults online – but it’s how you deal with it that makes the difference. Online abuse and profanity is never nice and can be dealt with in their respective communities (if they are strong enough), but I’d argue the real danger is when chatting on something like Habbo Hotel turns into chatting on MSN or Skype, and then meeting in person. What makes a young girl meet someone she barely knows?
The answer to this and the previous question, perhaps, lies more in reality than in the virtual world. I’ve grown up with access to computers and the internet, and taken part in one spectacular online community from a young age. What I noticed as I grew older was the propensity for older men to ‘latch on’ to younger women (sometimes girls under the legal age) – and for these girls to not realise how they were being exploited. With horror, I would hear of how girls of fourteen of fifteen, were meeting twenty-something men from the community on their own. Men who hadn’t been communally ‘vetted’ – that is, they weren’t known to the admins nor the regulars who met up every month or so – or who were relatively new to the site. I tried intervening at times: “Are you sure this is a good idea? You barely know him – meet him when there’s someone else around, and make sure your parents know”. Each time the response was hugely defensive – such that it didn’t take a genius to realise that their self-esteem was extremely low. So low that the first man who paid attention to them, even if it was some faceless stranger online, was worth investing time in. Worth endangering themselves for.
So, rather than outwardly banning such sites or demanding that they drastically restrict their services for other users (I’d delicately suggest that some individuals may actually quite like the sex talk on Habbo), implicitly entrusting children with an awareness of their own boundaries and their own safety is a better way to go about it. Teaching them to value themselves is particularly important – especially for young girls who are bombarded with a media that seemingly hates them for simply being.They need to be empowered to feel that they can say no; that their space is under their control. Young girls need to know that if a boy does something to them and they don’t like it, they have the right to be angry and the right to tell an adult about it without any shame or guilt.It also means telling boys that it’s not okay to objectify young girls or to feel entitled – it’s not okay to harass them for attention, sexual or otherwise.
Habbo is by no means the only place that this goes on, and indeed sexual harassment goes on in real life, and from a very young age. While I talk of ‘teaching’, I don’t mean parenting classes or even formal teaching at school, but a taking-apart of modern culture that classifies girls as objects and implicitly teaches them to consider themselves in that way. We need a cultural and attitudinal shift in society – for as long as young girls feel they are worthless or that their worth depends upon how others perceive them, then predators will easily be able to take advantage.Tagged in: child abuse, grooming, Habbo Hotel, internet, paedophilia, self-esteem, social networking, Sulake
Recent Posts on Games
- Fifa 13: I think I’m Jose Mourinho. And I like it
- Grayling promises school leavers three months of unpaid work in exchange for benefits. I for one would rather play computer games
- Explicit content in videogames: Why PEGI age ratings are a bad move
- The allure of videogame add-ons
- All’s well that ends well: Mass Effect 3 and narrative closure
Latest from Independent journalists on Twitter