Habbo Hotel: Young people frankly discuss online safety

Last month an undercover operation by Channel 4 journalists exposed one of the world’s most popular social networks for teenagers and young people as being rife with explicit content, risky sexual behaviour and linked to sentences for child grooming. A large investor responded by pulling out, founders responded by ‘muting’ all direct communication on the site… many young people responded with outright anger

In a piece last night, Channel 4 invited a small group of the 300,000 young people in the UK who are part of the community on the site to discuss the reaction, and their own positive and negative experiences. The result was a piece far more nuanced than the usual shock tactics used in the media around this subject, and the debate was clearly split between those who felt the site was totally unacceptable, and those who thought that the benefits they had gained outweighed the problems.

One point that stuck out was that on the whole they didn’t try to deny the allegations put forth by the journalists. They were fully aware of the high level of sexualised behaviour, and blasé about the presence of potential pedophiles. One young lady described how it bothered her at first, but she quickly learnt the skills to avoid and ignore it and get on with her positive use of the site. Others expressed that they may be more at risk from peers their own age misappropriating explicit images of them and circulating them than they were from the ‘peados’. It exposed the fact that 21st century skills have a real dark side…

There are significant issues in this piece, not least the worry that these young people may regret airing their personal experiences on national television, although it appears some of them had already done so to international audiences on YouTube. I unreservedly agree that Channel 4’s exposition of this, and the subsequent silencing of the site was the right thing to do. I worry about the ‘Great Unmute‘ campaign set up by the site’s founders to collect evidence and support for reinstating their full service. Currently running to over 25,000 contributions in english (more in other languages), many of these are uncomfortable statements from young people who feel that the site is the only place they could ‘express themselves’…

And yet, what it shows is the complex set of attitudes, priorities and experiences that constitute being a young person growing up online. Situations like this are shocking, but this is the first time I have heard young people being given the time and space to air their views so openly in the media about the communities they are building and the challenges they face. It strikes me that these kind of conversations need to be happening more often. There is little precedent in the experiences of today’s adults for the experience of growing up in an online world, we need to talk to them openly about it, and help them to navigate something almost totally new. Acting quickly to protect them from danger is paramount, but so is listening to them.

The clip below contains young people talking about sexual experiences some readers may find disturbing.

 

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