Growing up online

By Mic Wright on June 15th, 2012

I first logged on to the internet with a dial-up modem in 1994. It was a sparser, odder, more eccentric place then. A world of IRC channels, bulletin boards and shonkily built GeoCities pages. The “won’t someone think of the children” bleating had already begun but my internet usage was managed by the unimpeachable word of my mum and dad: “Don’t talk to weirdos, don’t look up things you wouldn’t want us to see too.” I stuck to the rules and had fun chatting with people around the world and finding out interesting facts. The number of hours I spent reading about Star Trek should be embarrassing, but they’re really not.

What I do find embarassing are the howls of censorship and calamity coming from teenage users of Habbo in the wake of the Channel 4 News report into sexual content on the service. The army of angry teens and tweens has descended on Channel 4 News editor Oliver James King with waves of abuse. When I tweeted in support of him, I got my own customised attacks too. The biggest complaint from these entitled little avatar-jockeys? That Habbo was their “only” place to be creative. Well boo fucking hoo. Take it from me, as one of the first kids to grow up with the internet: kids today have it good.

The internet is endlessly fascinating now and it offers kids the ability to build all sorts of things. Creating websites is easier than ever. Getting your photos, videos, writing or music seen by the world is easier than ever. There are communities dedicated to almost any pasttime or interest a few clicks away. And when you’re old enough to seek out filth, you no longer have to rely on finding discarded pieces of burnt pornography in local parks. Free pornography flows like ambrosia on Mount Olympus.

Channel 4 News’ report into Habbo was not perfect, nor were its interviews following the report. Interviews on British television are too adversarial thanks to the Paxmanification of conversation. However, the team were right to raise the clear issues with Habbo. If their findings were not shocking, why did Balderton Capital withdraw its investment? Why is Habbo itself in the midst of tail-chasing panic-mode PR damage control? There were clear and unpleasant issues with Habbo that needed addressing.

The key complaint from players of Habbo that I have spoken to is: the reporter didn’t have to go into those sexualised chat rooms. What they seem to miss is that those rooms should not have existed in the first place in an environment like Habbo. If the issue is that players who started in the game as pre-teens have now reached an age where they want sexual content, they should graduate from the safe space of Habbo for children to some kind of new level where more mature content is allowed.

I am not from the “think of the children” school of thought. Parents cannot avoid their children having some awareness of sex in today’s world but it is important that it does not become the dominant subject in the content children see. Children deserve to have online worlds that are appropriate for their age group and where they are protected from the darker strains of human psychology and behaviour. Habbo failed in its duty to moderate its community. Habbo users may be angry that their space has been intruded on by the roving eye of the news reporters but they need to realise that allowing an environment where paedophiles can prosper is in no-one’s interests, especially those of the users.

Even at 28 years old, I am an old man in internet terms. I have seen these controversies come and go so often, it is as if the earliest, the MySpace panics and Beebo confusions, occurred when Moses was carving his profile picture into a stone tablet. The web is ever evolving and is the richest source of human knowledge and creativity going. If Habbo players really think that contained world with its oddities, wonders and horrors is the only place they have to be creative, they really do need to grow up.