Youth Culture Window
MySpace? That’s soooooooo 2 years ago. Teens have a better place to go hang out online, but this time as an animated hottie.
And what’s on the menu for today? Hmmmmm. Should I pick up on some girls, get a virtual lap dance, or meet a stranger and give them a cyber French kiss…all in 3-D! (yes, you can actually select “French” from the menu of “flirt” actions)
It’s called IMVU.com, and millions of teens are navigating through “rooms” making friends…and making out. It’s little wonder that the site has registered 20 million users, most of which are American teenagers.
The Newest Online Hangout
Although it sounds a lot like it, IMVU is not just another virtual world. The company actually bills their site as the “world’s greatest 3-D Instant Message server.” If that sounds a little arrogant to you, just know they have very good reasons for making that claim.
IMVU encourages their users to “be the person you want to be” … a tempting offer for teenagers who “represent” themselves online.
Users express themselves by creating a personal, three dimensional character, known as an avatar, that can chat and interact with any other user from around the world. The options for customization are almost endless. Users can purchase a wide variety of virtual products including clothes, accessories, whole rooms, and even pets, using very real credit cards.
I investigated the site myself. Signing up was easy and I was able to create my very own “avatar,” a virtual representation of myself. Okay, okay… it doesn’t look anything like me at all! But I can see why teenagers like this site so much; there’s no option for “overweight,” “acne,” or “straight-up goofy looking!” (You should see me...I’m a stud!)
The avatars are almost always depicted as very attractive teenagers, (regardless of the user’s real age), and the graphics used by the designers give the avatars a very realistic appearance. Their body language can show emotions that range from interest, to confusion, to happiness, to boredom, and can even give that “come hither” look.
That look comes in handy for the female versions of the avatars who are dressed in incredibly sexy outfits. It’s a rarity to find a room without at least one “girl” walking around wearing a skimpy two piece of some sort. Designers have also given the avatars the ability to perform physical acts with one another, including flirting, dancing, kissing, and massaging. (On my very first visit, a female avatar approached mine, said hello, and then mounted me on the couch and kissed me.”)
Didn’t You Say Something About Lap Dances?
As if the site was not raunchy enough, for a fee, IMVU offers an Access Pass for even racier content. Users can gain access to “restricted” material for those who pay a nominal fee and can prove they’re 18 or older.
But that hasn’t stopped YouTube from posting several of these popular videos generated from their sexy virtual lap dances and provocative pole dances (warning, we didn't link these videos because many of them show "animated" nudity and are very risqué).
Unfortunately these videos are actually mild compared to what the Access Pass allows users to see. Let me break it down for you. There’s good news… and there’s bad news.
The good news: To go in the restricted "Access Pass" rooms, the site really does strive to prove that you’re 18. I tried to break it with no success. Users have to have a credit card with names and information that matches the user info. Plus, would-be users must also give the last 4 digits of their social security number, further verifying their age. The only way that kids could access this material would be to use their parents’ credit cards without them knowing (so only parents who don’t look over their itemized bill are in danger). Users who pay for the Access Pass and pass the age verification test are awarded a “badge” for their avatar to prove they are over 18.
The bad news: I bought an Access Pass (after verifying my age) and found out the “restricted” material definitely lives up to its name. This “adult community” allows “mature content” like alcohol use, full frontal nudity, profanity, and blood & gore, to name a few. I meandered into a bar using my Access Pass and a totally naked “cyber-girl” walked right up to me and initiated a conversation (I’ll spare you that screenshot). I was in a room for just a few minutes and saw "animated" female and male genitals.
What about the "teenage" chat rooms? Can these adults with their "adult pass" go in there?
Yes, the ones with clothes on anyway. But you would think that this Access Pass and age verification system means that all 18+ users are easily identifiable to the 13 year old users, right? And there’s no way an adult can approach a minor in a “teenage” chat room and have a conversation that could land him or her in jail in the real world, right?
Wrong. Besides lying, users who are 18+ can actually “hide” their badges in their account settings. Here it is, straight from the IMVU web site:
Can I hide the Age Verification Icon?
I quickly discovered that lying is not only common in this virtual world… it’s almost standard. I asked several girls how old they were. They said 16. I immediately typed that I was 31. Then they would change their story… “Uh… I’m actually 22.”
Yes! All you have to do is go to your Account Settings, scroll down to "Badge Visibility Settings," and uncheck any checkboxes to hide the Age Verification icon at that location. Remember to press the "Update Preferences" button when you are satisfied with your selections.
This happened almost every time I tried it.
But fear not… (sarcasm implied), IMVU has posted a list of safety tips for their users to adhere to that’s supposed to prevent dangerous and criminal interaction between adults and minors. (I’m sure tons of teenagers visit that page on the site….)
I wish I could tell you that only the Access Pass “community” was raunchy. Unfortunately the “limited access” virtual world- available to all teenagers- offered plenty of racy material as well. I took the screenshot to the left in a dance room that any kid has access to.
Let’s face it. By combining sexy avatars with the ability for physical interaction between them, IMVU has created a place where millions of teens will continue to spend their time…and their money.
Making Friends Is Big Business
There is absolutely zero doubt that IMVU is targeting a teenage audience. But something tells me their chief concern is not helping socially inept teens from the real world make tons of friends online. Let’s face it; these sites, and other virtual worlds, make big bucks.
To put things in perspective, Disney recently bought Club Penguin, a popular VW for children, for $350 million! IMVU makes about $1 million each month in revenue as users pay real money for virtual goods. Soon, IMVU users will be able to purchase brand name accessories and characters – including celebrities – for their online lives. Younger teens without credit cards need not fret; they can buy prepaid cards at stores like Target and Best Buy. Techcrunch estimates that $1.5 billion is spent each year by users of online chat communities and virtual worlds!
Risqué Virtual Worlds In The Real World
So, what are you going to say when a teenager asks you whether or not he should construct an avatar and begin roaming the rooms of IMVU? After all, the site gives him the chance to customize himself so he can finally “be the person he wants to be.” Plus, he’ll have a connection to his friends, make new ones, and possibly have some one-on-one time with…um…showgirls.
- Remind students of the far-reaching boundaries of integrity. So many students think that different (read fewer) rules apply to their online lives, especially in the department of truth. Teens tend to manipulate the truth about themselves (and others) when they log on. Though Jesus rarely taught on the subject of Internet usage…ok, He never taught on that particular subject…His call to us for godliness and righteousness must permeate all of who we are…real world or virtual world. More importantly, who teens are and what they do online tends to affect who they are and what they do in real life. We need to be people of integrity. (Click here for a great free piece of curriculum from www.TheSource4YM.com on integrity using a video clip from “Horton Hears a Who” about being faithful 100%. Or click here for a Music Discussion on authenticity using a Foo Fighters’ song.)
- Help students develop discernment. One of the most striking occurrences in adolescent development is the transformation that takes place in their thinking. Most teenagers begin to “decide for themselves” during this timeframe in life. If we as youth workers help them learn how to apply godly decision-making principles to their lives, it reduces the need to stand over them in every temptation or morally ambiguous situation. (Click here for another of our movie clip discussions using a scene from “13 Going on 30” to talk about living life with no regrets based off of 2 Cor. 7:10.)
Help students study passages of scripture like “Flee sexual immorality.” (I Cor. 6:18) Talk about what “flee” means. Does “flee” mean that we can dabble in a world of promiscuity? Help students discern how to flee situations of temptation.
- Fill the need for virtual relationships with authentic relationships. If students sense community within real people, there is little need to look elsewhere for it. According to this 2008 study by OTX, 91% of teens would rather have a lot of real friends, compared to 9% who would rather have a lot of online friends. Authentic relationships should definitely include those shared with godly adults as well (think about the adult leaders in your youth ministry). Connecting kids in biblical fellowship is foundational to their faith development. That’s what the new CONNECT seminar from TheSource4YM.com is all about.
Your hard work in the real world pays off, both here and online, so don’t give up, no matter who targets your teens. Continue to help students obey God regardless of where they are. Your calling is worthy of the labor.
David R. Smith
is a 15-year youth ministry veteran who helps youth
workers and parents through his writing, training, and speaking. David specializes in sharing the
gospel, and equipping others do the same. He co-authored his first book this year,
Ministry By Teenagers
. David provides free
resources to anyone who works with teenagers on his website, DavidRSmith.org
David resides with his wife and son in Tampa, Florida.
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