|Only 4079 online at Habbo Hotel less than a week after pedophile story breaks|
UK broadcaster Channel 4 broke a story this week reporting that virtual world Habbo Hotel is a "Mecca for pedophiles." The tone was sensational. The allegations were disturbing:
I created my cartoon child-like avatar (my online persona) as a little girl with shorts and T-shirt and a flower in her hair, and she wandered across brightly-coloured rooms with teddy bears, flashing neon lights, pink ponies and fluttering butterflies. But within minutes, lines of chat on speech bubbles rolled over the screen filled with pornographic chat . . . I was also, within a couple of minutes, asked to strip, fully naked, and asked what would I do on a webcam.The public reaction to the story was swift and severe. Investors have withdrawn funding, retailers have stopped selling Habbo gift cards and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children has called for a government investigation. In response, Habbo temporarily suspended chat capability and the CEO blogged a long list of policies they have place to protect children. After growing to 9 million unique user a month in 2012, it's possible that their days are numbered.
Is Habbo Hotel being unfairly demonized? Is the story just a reflection of activity that routinely goes on in other virtual worlds and social networks?
It's not surprising that pedophiles have been attracted to Habbo Hotel. Its core demographic of 13-16 year olds is an age group both sexually naive and inquisitive. The avatars look like pubescent kids and can be semi-clothed in swimming suits and bikinis. There is no mechanism that even attempts to segregate young teens from adults. Although chat is monitored, the task of screening 70 million lines of chat each day is clearly far too great for their 250 computer-assisted monitors.
That said, no one has come up with a foolproof solution to keep adults out of sites meant for young people. It's likely that an investigation into just about any teen-oriented site offering realtime chat would uncover at least some similar activity. And teens won't tolerate the type of computer-filtered chat used by sites that cater to grade school children. Age verification works to some extent if you want to limit access to people over 21. But as far as I know, there's no way to validate that someone is under 18.
So is it a bad idea to mix young teens and adults in a 3D chat site? Of course. Is it possible to keep adults out. I don't think so.
I'll leave you with this (now) ironic marketing video from Habbo Hotel that tells the story of an "undercover investigation" into their site.