The story resulting from the New York Times’s six-month-long investigation starts with Justin Berry, who got his start at age 13 buying a Webcam to meet other teenage friends online. Within weeks he was getting paid $50 “to sit bare-chested in front of his computer for three minutes” for a man who helped him instantly set up a PayPal account. Over five years, Justin developed an audience of 1,500 that paid him “hundreds of thousands of dollars.” The connected computer was in his room, and he hid the Webcams behind it during the day so his mother wouldn’t see them, the Times reports. Worse: Justin’s activities were only part of the “Webcam Matrix,” a term dubbed by another teenager cited by the Times, who, also for money, operates his own site of self-published child porn.
The Times article is the first I’ve seen in 8+ years of following reportage on kids and tech pointing to a trend or a generalized pattern of actions and genre of Web sites. The pattern of behavior and sites/blogs, on the teenagers’ part, are about money, naivete, the need to connect, or combinations of the above. The pattern of actions on the adults’ part are well known to law enforcement. What was much less known is how wide-spread self-published child porn has become. There have been scattered reports of teens exposing themselves for intimate friends, before the friendship “goes bad” and photos are maliciously IM’ed or emailed around (e.g., see “India: Child porn by teens” and “Self-published child porn”); The Times also tells of how these photos’ subjects, too, wind up as “pornographic commodities” on the Web. But now we know these social-context incidents with tragic results are only the tip of the iceberg. “Easy money” for teens is aided by Internet companies large and small “wittingly and unwittingly” (the latter including PayPal and Amazon, but non-financial services and technologies are involved too, of course). And this investigative reporting has led to “a wide-scale criminal investigation.” The Times says it persuaded Justin, now a very courageous 19-year-old, to shut down his business and help the Justice Department with its investigation, possibly facing prosecution himself.
It’s a long article, with Justin’s complete story. The companion video interview shows what Justin’s been through and the integrity that compelled him to tell his story for other kids’ sake. Here are some key points in the article that parents might want to know: 1) “As soon as Justin hooked the camera to his bedroom computer and loaded the software [back in 2000], his picture was *automatically* posted [emphasis mine] on spotlife.com, an Internet directory of Webcam users, along with his contact information.” 2) “No one Justin’s age ever contacted him from that listing” and “within minutes he heard from his first online predator … followed by another, then another.” 3) Video-hosting is offered by many services now, including blogging/social-networking sites, and IM services allow users to attach videos, but kids can also easily create their own video-enabled Web sites (so many services are free – no credit card bills to alert parents). [Here’s a story from Agence France Press on the rapid rise of vlogging, or video blogging.]