TEENS AND THE INTERNET:
Disturbing "Camgirl" Sites Deserve a Closer Look

By HARRY A. VALETK

Thursday, Jan. 23, 2003

A growing number of teens in the U.S. and U.K., some as young as 14 years old, are getting into the habit of asking for handouts online.

Known as "camgirls" and "camboys," teens are posting webcam photos of themselves in skimpy outfits on personal websites, linking them to wish lists on shopping sites like Amazon, and then asking admirers for gifts. Typically, gifts include popular teen items like CDs, DVDs, and stereos. But, some entrepreneurial teens give special admirers access to "members only" sections that offer more provocative shots in return for more expensive gifts.

Surprisingly, this spectacle in teen self-exploitation has gone largely unnoticed among parents and policymakers. And, as more youngsters become seasoned Internet users, the concern is that these sites will become even more popular. According to a 2002 Commerce Department study, teens as a group are now using the Internet in record numbers. Specifically, the study found that 75 percent of teens between 14 and 17 years old, and 65 percent of teens between 10 and 13 years old, regularly use the Internet.

Camgirl Sites Are Dangerous

For teens, the danger of camgirl sites is that they can mislead minors into thinking they can safely post visual candy in exchange for material favors. On the surface, teens using intermediary wish list services might think they're safe from predators, since wish list operators don't reveal the "wisher's" location. But, teens using personal websites often fail to realize that a predator can get their website owner address from the public domain.

For adult admirers, the hope is often that their gifts will buy more than just photos. For example, a predator may eventually ask for sexually explicit photos or try to persuade the minor to meet offline.

For parents and law enforcement, the overwhelming concern is that any interaction between minors and total strangers could lead to stalking and other unhealthy obsessions. Internet safety experts like Parry Aftab, author and head of WiredSafety.org, a global non-profit Internet help and safety network, warn that pedophiles use camgirl sites to interact with teens, meet them in chat rooms, and ultimately persuade them to meet in person.

No doubt, incidents in the U.S., Canada, and elsewhere have publicized the risks associated with reckless use of the Internet by teens. Consider the tragic demise of Christina Long, the 13 year-old Connecticut girl strangled by a man she met online. After her death, police found Christina's personal website, named "Sexy Me For You To See," riddled with sexually graphic material. Shocking her family and friends, authorities learned that Christina had sexual encounters with men she met in chat rooms. Sadly, the last of these rendezvous ended with her premature death.

In a broader sense, camgirl sites could also create a dangerous illusion about the true nature of an online relationship. To a youngster, exchanging "gifts for pics" is often an amusing experience that happens to attract gifts. But, left unexamined, the growing popularity of camgirl sites could affect how authorities investigate criminal activity involving minors, since any interaction with strangers could suggest that the minor, who only wanted gifts and admiration, was mutually interested in a sexual relationship.

The Camgirl Phenomenon and the Law

Safety concerns aside, camgirl sites are legal. In the U.S., no federal law prohibits minors from posting photographs of themselves online or exchanging gifts with strangers. Rather, the law only protects children from sexual abuse or exploitation.

But what about child pornography and obscenity laws? Those laws don't apply because most camgirl site photographs don't show nudity or sexual activity by a minor - basic prerequisites for prosecuting child pornography, obscenity, or indecency cases. Instead, teens pose in swimsuits, leotards, and sleepwear intended to be erotic, but not pornographic. The goal is to show just enough skin to arouse admirers, but not so much that it would be considered sexually explicit.

In recent years, the U.S. Supreme Court has heard several challenges to federal laws intended to protect minors from harmful online content, and struck down a number of them for constitutional violations. Two major casualties are worth citing. One was the 2002 decision in Ashcroft v. Free Speech Coalition, in which the Court struck down vague portions of the Child Pornography Prevention Act outlawing virtual child pornography. The other was the 1997 decision in Reno v. ACLU, in which the Court rejected the overreaching provisions of the Communications Decency Act.

The lesson learned: when it comes to the Internet, new laws are not always the best approach.

Creating a Safer Virtual Environment for Kids

Instead, we must first think more generally and systematically about how to make the Internet safer for kids - and how to do so without violating First Amendment protections. We should also rethink online safety in a way that suits the Internet's global presence.

To give one example of a viable plan, earlier this month, officials in the UK launched a massive Internet safety campaign to educate users about online dangers. The program aims to remind parents and teens that they must surf with caution, and avoid risky interaction with strangers. A U.S. counterpart to this campaign would be a very good idea.

Right now, responsibility for Internet safety in the U.S. remains scattered among federal, state, and local agencies. The measures taken so far have mostly targeted fraud, hacking, and other law enforcement concerns.

As a result, online child safety is generally addressed after-the-fact when a perpetrator must be prosecuted. That needs to change. Authorities should be equipped to take more proactive measures to prevent the harm that too often accompanies promiscuous online activities by minors.

Inexplicably, although the U.S. is a leader in Internet technology, other countries have already gone farther than we have when it comes to promoting online safety. Countries like New Zealand have effectively advanced forward-thinking strategies by creating independent Internet safety boards to develop nationwide initiatives. These government-sponsored programs publish online safety materials for schools, foster international law enforcement alliances, fund online risk research, and give users a centralized Internet authority for uniform guidance.

We in the U.S. should do at least as much - if not more - along these lines. Before our kids can truly be free in cyberspace, they must first be safe.


Harry A. Valetk is an attorney with the U.S. Department of Justice in New York City. He has written extensively on identity theft, online child safety, privacy protections, spam scams, and cyberstalking laws. The opinions expressed in this article are the author's, not those of the U.S. Government. Mr. Valetk may be reached by email at harry@valetk.com.

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