Habbo and Skout scandals raise question of teenagers’ safety online

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Teenage community Habbo.com has lost a key investor following a Channel 4 report exposing chat of a sexually explicit nature, while flirting app Skout has suspended its teenage service after three rape cases were tied to the app.

Earlier this week, a Channel 4 News report revealed that Habbo.com, an online virtual world created for teenagers, was a hotbed of cyber-sexual activity involving minors. Rachel Seifert reported that she decided to investigate the site when she heard stories of inappropriate activity from primary-school children.

In Habbo Hotel, users create avatars called Habbos and inhabit a world of public and private rooms where they can chat and connect with other users. The site’s parent company, Sulake, makes millions from the service as users can also buy credits in order to purchase furnishings for their own private hotel rooms.

Cute and cuddly, and sexually explicit

Habbo.com is specifically targeted to users aged 13-18, but Seifert heard stories about the site from children even younger than that. “One 10-year-old girl told me that boys kept trying to kiss her and follow her to her bedroom which she really didn’t like as she just wanted to play the game,” she wrote. “Another boy said that he saw one character ‘abusing this girl saying really inappropriate things.’”

When Seifert decided to check out the site for herself, she was shocked by its explicit sexual nature. “The busiest rooms were named ‘sexy stripclub’, ‘naughty nightclub’, and so forth. Rooms which were full of rows of beds with cartoon children laying down ready for people to come and have sex with them, rooms which had ‘kissing booths’ which shook while they were being used for cyber sex. This was all graphically described in moving speech bubbles above,” she wrote.

Habbo.com

Describing herself as an 11-year-old girl on the site, Seifert was shocked by how many sexual advances were made on her avatar, which involved characters saying they were doing pornographic and perverse things to her. In her 50 visits to the site, she had a similar experience every time.

The extreme sexuality of the environment was in stark contrast to the childlike graphics wherein it all took place. “There were even little cartoon girls dressed in red and black bikini thongs and teddy bear ears who were dancing on a platform and performing a striptease for the cartoon boys while white ponies, bunny rabbits and chickens were running around in the background. It was unbelievable.”

A dangerous place for youngsters

These revelations and more were broadcast on Channel 4 News, with Jon Snow referring to the site as “a children’s brothel” that was “inhabited by paedophiles”. These claims were based on the discovery that two convicted sex offenders had posed as teenagers on the site in order to pick up victims.

Det-Const Karen Berry of the Essex Police detailed a case where one 21-year-old man had coerced more than 80 young girls, ranging in age from 10 to 14, to commit sexual acts via a webcam. Another man was recently jailed for two years for sex offences against two boys that he met in Habbo Hotel.

Online safety expert John Carr – who has advised the UN, EU and UK government – also visited the site and said: “If I was a parent of an 11-year-old girl on this site, I would want there to be a moral panic. This should not be happening. What I’ve just seen makes me think this is a dangerous place for youngsters to be.”

Failure to moderate

Responding to the Channel 4 report, Paul LaFontaine, CEO of Sulake, posted a blog wherein he notes the security measures operated by the site. These include 24/7 monitoring of about 70m lines of content every day by 225 moderators. Inappropriate content and users are filtered and blocked and they also provide ways for users to protect themselves by way of blocking and reporting other users and adjusting their privacy settings.

These measures, however, have evidently fallen short of policing the global network of 250m users in more than 150 countries. LaFontaine cites the awarding of a ‘Safer by Design’ commendation from the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) last year in his defence of its security, but a former chief executive of CEOP, Jim Gamble, also appeared on the Channel 4 show claiming that if Habbo has the number of human moderators it purports to have, he can’t see why they’re not picking this activity up.

Virtual reality needs virtual policing

Gamble, who saw for himself the content that was being exchanged on the online community, noted that virtual reality needs virtual policing to spot users with criminal or malicious intent and have them banned from the site. He also pointed to the dangers of using avatars rather than real identities.

Habbo sees this as a safety measure. “One important difference between Habbo and some other social sites and tools is that user identities remain concealed and users cannot share content apart from their conversations,” writes LaFontaine. “This means that if our users do encounter uncomfortable conversations during their time on the site, they are not exposed to inappropriate images or able to share their own inappropriate images within the Habbo community. We actively work to keep users from moving away from our online community into less well-regulated environments.”

However, creating virtual characters makes it easier to deceive the site’s moderators and other users, and, despite Habbo’s efforts, users are known to persistently invite others to chat to them on other services, such as Skype or MSN.

To separate and protect?

With new technologies come new concerns for parents, and social media is just the tip of the iceberg. The mobile web also poses a danger, with communities based on sharing images and locations providing predators with opportunities.

With more than 10m users, Skout is the leading location-based mobile application allowing users to connect with each other based on their proximity. Originally, the service was for adults only, but, when operators realised that teenagers were signing up, they opted to create a specialised network for teens only, in order to better protect them.

Skout

Skout’s teen service separates users into age-appropriate groups so members could only communicate with their peers. However, lying about your age on a web service is too easily done, exposing this teen network to predators.

Three rape cases involving the app have been reported in the US, all of which involved older men arranging to meet up with teenagers from the community. Disgusted by these events, Skout’s founder and CEO Christian Wiklund made the decision to suspend the teen service pending the recommendations of a taskforce on improving age verification and other safety measures.

Social networking for kids – is it safe?

As we come to a time when digital natives are establishing a presence online, questions around child safety on social networks will always be at the forefront. The incidents on Skout and Habbo show that segregating teenage communities is not effective if predators can find and connect with them there.

Facebook, the world’s biggest social network, is rumoured to be working on specialised accounts for under-13s and, apparently, has decided to do so because of the fact that children younger than 13 are gaining access to the site anyway and this way it can provide a strictly moderated forum specifically for them.

Facebook already monitors activity on the site closely in order to keep all of its users safe, both young and old. But on such a vast network, it’s impossible to catch everything. In 2009, 17-year-old Ashleigh Hall was kidnapped, raped and murdered by a man she had met on Facebook. The convicted, Peter Chapman, was handed a life sentence in March of last year.

Chapman, a serial sex offender, made contact with Ashleigh by posing as a teenage boy on Facebook and convincing her to meet in person.

Backlash and consequences

Since the Channel 4 exposé, Habbo.com has had a key investor pull out and Tesco, WH Smith and GAME decide to pull gift cards for the site from their shelves. Today, all conversations across the site have been muted while the company investigates the moderation shortfalls and reviews its long-term plans for the community.

Tweet from Habbo.com

Some users have been frustrated by this development, labelling the Channel 4 report biased and the claims exaggerated. Skout will undoubtedly undergo similar backlash from disgruntled teens who want their service back.

But, despite these complaints, safety must be of primary concern for young people online.

Online teenager image via Shutterstock

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Elaine Burke is managing editor of Siliconrepublic.com

editorial@siliconrepublic.com