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    How Do You Assess Online Risks For Youth Without Being Digitally Competent

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    Time to get digitally competent

    In an age where information technology is growing rapidly in our everyday personal and professional lives, there is a growing expectation for social workers and other children’s professionals to ensure young people are indeed safe in these environments and identifying risks accordingly. But, how do we assess online risks for youth without being digitally competent ourselves?

    There has been a clear indications social workers should be assessing children and young people’s well-being by considering the relationship they have with technology in their home, at school and the wider internal and external social factors that have an influence on this relationship.

    But do Social workers know enough about the digital technologies like social media platforms, online games, virtual worlds and MMORPGS to ask the right questions and be able to identify the risks a child or a young person may be exposing themselves to?

    A study conducted by Channel 4 News in 2012 found the social networking platform Habbo to be full of pornographic sexual chat, violence and pornographic acts also known as cybersex and concluded there were a lapse in moderation practices within the game.

    An additional survey conducted by Mumsnet one of the largest parenting websites found 66% of 8-12 year olds think the top concerns in Habbo hotel were of course:

    • Sexual content
    • Talking to Strangers

    However, the fundamental reasons why young people and children continue to play Habbo due to it were “easy” and ironically “safe to play”.

    Checking into HabboLogo_Habbo_1

    Habbo, formally known as Habbo Hotel is owned by Finnish Company Sulake and is an online community of over 15 million players officially targeted for young people 13 and above, but the service has been claimed to be used by children as young as 9. While playing the virtual world you can create your own cutesy character to express your online identify and chat to other people, friends or strangers in public or private.

    Habbo considers itself to be a free to play game, whereby you can explore the site for free, complete quests, chat, and win prizes without having the pay a thing. However, young people are limited to a certain extent because they have to purchase the furniture by using “Habbo Credit” gained by real paying real money to design their own rooms. Players are also limited to specific content like pets, Habbo club, (VIP membership), and builders club that is packaged as premium packages costing either on a pay-as-go basis or monthly fee and this can get quite expensive.

    Online Moderation and Safeguarding

    Moderation is a method used throughout online communities to monitor activity such as chat, comments, links, images, videos and just about anything that is user generated content (UGC). Depending on the site’s content, volume and audience will vary on the moderation strategy, however, there is usually a mixture of human and computer supported moderation.

    Habbo has claimed on their website to have a moderation team of around 225 human moderators, monitoring the program 24/7, 7 days a week to safeguard the young people online throughout different time-zones. The young people can use the “call for help” tool to ignore or report a player if the “Habbo Way” is being broken to let a Moderator know what is happening and take relevant action. But is this enough?

    Read more of reporting and blocking in Habbo Hotel.

    Case study

    Matthew Leonard an example of the potential dangers of Habbo was jailed for seven years in 2012 for a string of online child sex offences by using Habbo Hotel. It was noted he contacted round 80 victims whom some was just as young as ten years of age.

    Leonard would lure his victims in by offering them free virtual furniture as discussed in the above. Leonard would then move his discussions to private messaging programmes such as Skype and MSN at the time to record his victims conduct sexual acts. Even thouRandom_room_nightclubgh at the time at the time this was an unnoticed case in the public eye, but it is still certainly worth noting to the danger children and young people may be exposing themselves to.

    Kick the Hab-It

    So what can Social Workers learn and do to ensure the protection of children when using Habbo? Well, it is certainly not going to surprise many of you Habbo is not going to go away; in fact, it is a growing service and is enjoyed by many children and young people across the globe. In May 2014, Sulake released the Habbo application onto the iPad for the App store worldwide, it has also been noted Habbo is now accessible on iPhone, making Habbo more accessible to children and young people. Therefore, it is important for Social Workers to educate children, young people and especially parents about the strengths and dangers of using Habbo.

    Being open and honest

    It was noted in several reports that children as young as 9 were checking into Habbo and with the vase growth of technology being developed and Habbo is and will become available on these platforms the problem will continue to grow. Therefore, it is important for parents to communicate with their children and educate them on some of the reasons for and against playing Habbo. However, parents should certainly keep in mind Habbo’s terms of service does states children under 13 cannot play the game.

    Read more on Habbo’s Terms Of Service

    Learning the “Habbo Way”

    If a young person wishes to play Habbo, it is important they are open and honest with you and visa versa. This will allow for a healthy relationship to grow for you to be able to engage them with the rules and expectations of the game. In an unfortunate situation of something going wrong while playing the game and children and young people should be confident to take suitable steps to notify a member of staff on the site and get out of a situation and tell someone they trust in the real world.

    Habbo outline rules on their program, and this is called the “Habbo Way”. I would advise for parents, carers and Social Workers to take time to learn the Habbo Way to enable them to educate their children and young people about the rules Habbo put in place to keep them safe and ensure a friendly clean environment.

    Read more on the Habbo Way

    Call for help

    As much as we would like to think we can monitor what our children and young are doing 24/7 we have to put so much trust in them to be mature and use them own anatomy to get out of heated situations. Habbo has claimed to do operate a 24 hour, 7 days a week moderating team to ensure the safety of the young people in paramount. However, educating young people and children to use the “Emergency button”, “Block” and “Reporting” features to notify a member of staff is really important. Again, as I have emphasised within the above, having open and honest communication with young people will enhance these practices further.

    Read Habbo Hotel information on reporting and blocking.

    Keeping your pixels privateSafety_Page_details

    It is a growing probably but keeping your real identities, passwords and other information that is personal should not be disclosed while visiting Habbo. It is important for parents and Social workers to education children while online their personal information should be protected at all times. Even giving online information such as Skype names, or Email addresses could put someone in real danger; due to the fact this information could have phone numbers, photos or school information attached to these IDs.

    As commented within the above, Habbo is an online interactive experience and therefore will “chat” to new people and make new e-friends the majority of the time. Again, it is important for parents and social workers to express people who you talk to online should be kept as pixels online. Having this open and honest about if someone is making them feel uncomfortable or scaring them in Habbo it is ok for them to tell someone in real life and to report it to a member of staff on the site.

    Read Habbo Hotel information on how to change privacy settings

    Checking out

    As much as we would like to put our trust and faith that our children are protected while using these kinds of services you can never do too much to ensure your child or young person is given a toolkit in order for them to make safe choices while online. If someone asks for their personal details, do not give them out. If someone is going to give your free virtual gifts for Skype or Email addresses, report them. If someone is asking you to do something on Webcam, block, report and shut down the program for an hour or 2. These simple but effective methods will increase your child’s security when visiting Habbo.

    Read more about online safety at Habbo

    Further Reading

    The European Network of Information Security Agency (ENISA), (2008) Children On Virtual Worlds

    UK Council For Child Internet Safety, (UKCCIS) (2010) Good practice guidance for the moderation of interactive services for children

    UK Council For Child Internet Safety, (UKCCIS) (2010) UK Home Office Guidance for Providers of Social Networking

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    Greg Reardon is a registered qualified Social Worker who graduated from the University of Northampton in July 2014. Greg has many years of experience in providing a high quality care a support in a variety of different roles in the: health, education and voluntary sectors. Greg is also an experienced Community Manager and Moderation Specialist with over 8 years of knowledge and skills in help building platforms that intelligently manage content in kids', teens' and adults' communities, online games and social media. Greg’s main areas of interest is Sexuality and Gender studies and service provision with young people. Greg is also passionate in highlighting the concerns of round: esafety, Privacy and Online Behaviour.

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