Tesco, WH Smith and GAME stop selling Habbo gift cards after Channel 4 News uncovers lapses in the moderation of an online game for teenagers, including interactions of an explicit sexual nature.
Seemingly innocent, Habbo Hotel, with its bright colours, pink teddy bears, flashing lights, and roaming ponies, is one of a growing number of virtual worlds created for kids. And with 10 million unique visitors a month, it is “the world’s largest social game and online community for teenagers”.
The game is set in a virtual hotel, where kids create avatars with which they can move around rooms, chat to other users in public or privately and even buy credits in the real world to furnish their virtual hotel room.
However, Channel 4 News found the site to be full of pornographic sexual chat, despite the fact it is aimed at children as young as 13 years old. We know from our own research that youngsters of nine play on Habbo Hotel.
Tesco has revealed that following our investigation it will no longer stock gift cards for the site in its stores. The cards can be used to buy furniture for the users online “rooms” in the hotel.
WH Smith did the same, saying: “”We were concerned to learn of the allegations about Habbo Hotel made in the Channel 4 News report. In response, we have taken this product off sale, pending further investigation.”
Independent producer Rachel Seifert spent two months playing this seemingly innocent game posing as a young girl. She found alongside the balloons and teddies, chats and interactions of an explicit sexual nature. The ease with which this happened was shocking.
There should be the equivalent of the virtual fire-brigade jumping in on this, but it’s not happening. John Carr, child safety expert
Rachel said: “The chat was very sexual, perverse, violent, pornographic, overtly sexual acts, people saying they were going to do things to others, and it was very graphic.
“Within two minutes I was being asked individually ‘do you have a webcam?’, ‘can we chat on (instant messenger service) MSN, on Skype?’ I was also, within a couple of minutes, asked to strip, fully naked, and asked what would I do on a webcam.”
Rachel played the game 50 times and on each occasion had similar experiences.
Read more: Striptease and cyber sex: my stay at Habbo Hotel
When we played the game with one of the world’s leading experts on child safety, John Carr, we were soon being asked to move away from the game and onto Skype or MSN. We played the game at 4.30 in the afternoon. Within minutes we were sent a friend request from an avatar called DirtyBoii who soon messaged our avatar, “Can I ask u what yr body’s like”.
John Carr told us: “A moderator should be jumping in right now as it’s not hard to see where this is going before it gets a lot worse. This is very worrying and going in a very bad direction.
“Here’s someone aged 11 being asked to leave the site [ie make contact outside Habbo Hotel]. There should be the equivalent of the virtual fire-brigade jumping in on this, but it’s not happening.
“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.
“Businesses shouldn’t put children at risk. If they are in this business, they have to be in it in the right way – the right moderators, the right software, to stop this happening.”
In a statement, Paul LaFontaine, the chief executive of Sulake, the company which owns the website, told Channel 4 News it is committed to ensuring that children are safe on the site: “Any online community that allows users to assume virtual identities may be open to abuses, which is why we work hard to keep users safe, filtering content and blocking inappropriate users.
“We also provide education and rapid-response support to users who experience uncomfortable conversations.”
He added: “Habbo’s moderation and safeguarding procedures includes employing more than 225 moderators, tracking some 70m lines of conversation globally every day on a 24/7 basis. These moderators cover all time-zones and the multiple languages in which Habbo users converse.”
— Paul LaFontaine (@PaulLaFo) June 12, 2012
We made further inquiries about Habbo Hotel and found that it is more than kids who have been role-playing on the site. We investigated, and found two recent cases where two paeodphiles have been convicted for sexually abusing dozens of kids who they befriended on Habbo Hotel.
One, Matthew Leonard, was recently jailed for seven years – one of the longest prison sentences of this kind due to the nature of the case.
Leonard used Habbo Hotel to befriend youngsters who he then persuaded to go off the site, in return for free “furniture” for their room, which would normally cost users money.
From there, the girls were persuaded to strip and show themselves on webcams. This was then used to blackmail the girls to commit further sexual acts for him via webcam.
Police investigations traced over 80 victims. All were originally contacted on Habbo Hotel.
Since we alerted them to our findings, Habbo Hotel has posted the following warning to its users: “We do not promote or allow explicitly sexual content. Cybering (talk simulating sex) and cam requests are strictly forbidden in Habbo. Any room that is set up to clearly signal cybering activities will immediately be shut down.”
However, the case of Habbo Hotel highlights a major problem with games targeted at children in an industry which is self-regulated.
Channel 4 News has passed the findings of the investigation to the government.