Rachel Seifert writes for Channel 4 News about her shocking and sometimes sexually-explicit experiences playing the popular online game Habbo Hotel while posing as an 11-year old girl.
My first venture into the virtual online world of children started quite innocently. I expected bright colours, tinkly music, cartoon characters and fluffy animals. And when I first logged into the site of Habbo Hotel, that is pretty much what I got.
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. At first I couldn’t quite believe my eyes, but it was there in black and white.
See the Channel 4 News investigation into the alarming world of Habbo Hotel
These small avatars were literally having what I can only describe as cyber-sex. The juxtaposition of these explicitly sexual conversations against the backdrop of colourful balloons, talking rabbits and luminous rainbows was just shocking.
From that moment I was immersed into a whole new world of “cybering” (cyber sex). I had little cartoon boys coming up to me and saying they were feeling my boobs, following me to my bedroom and having sex with me, all without my permission or encouragement. At first it left me feeling slightly dirty and then pretty quickly, outraged.
This soon developed into these characters asking whether I would get naked on a webcam, or simply watch them masturbate. The requests were persistent and often forceful, making me feel pressured under the barrage. And many of these requests came despite posing as an 11-year-old.
And this seemed to be the norm for the site. In fact, it felt to me that this was what people went there for.
Habbo Hotel statement
Paul LaFontaine, the chief executive of Sulake, the company which owns Habbo Hotel, 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.”
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.
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.
I had gone into the site originally as I had spoken to a number of primary schoolchildren, some of whom mentioned that they played on Habbo Hotel as it was a popular children’s game and their friends were on it.
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. Another boy said that he saw one character “abusing this girl saying really inappropriate things”.
But I really wasn’t expecting this extreme sexual, often forceful or violent, experience from what is meant to be a children’s gaming site.
I am sure many parents will also not be expecting this.
Rachel Seifert is an independent producer working for Channel 4 News.