JUSTIN BERRY sat at home in California, eyes fixed on a computer screen. He had never run with the popular crowd, and long ago had turned to the internet for the friends he craved. But on this day, the 13-year-old's fascination with cyberspace would change his life.
Weeks before, Justin hooked up a web camera, hoping to use it to meet other teenagers online. Instead, he heard only from men, who chatted with him by instant message as they watched his image on the internet. To Justin, they seemed just like friends, ready with compliments and always offering gifts.
Then one day in 2000, a man sent a proposal: he would pay Justin $US50 to sit bare-chested in front of the webcam for three minutes. He even helped Justin open an account online. "I figured, I took off my shirt at the pool for nothing," Justin told The New York Times this year. "So, I was kind of like, what's the difference?"
So began Justin's secret life of selling images of his body over the internet. Over five years he made hundreds of thousands of dollars performing in front of the webcam - undressing, showering, masturbating and even having sex - for an audience of more than 1500 people, many of whom were doctors, lawyers, businessmen and teachers, a Times investigation has revealed.
Justin's father also took an interest in his pornographic career. For a share of the profits, Justin says, Knute Berry procured prostitutes for Justin to have sex with in front of the webcam.
Justin's story is not unique. Minors, often under the tutelage of adults, are opening sites featuring their images, for a fee, sent onto the internet by inex-pensive webcams. They perform from the privacy of home.
The business has created youthful porn stars - with nicknames like Riotboyy and Miss Honey - whose images are traded long after their sites have gone. In this world teenagers announce to subscribers when they will next masturbate and eager customers can even buy "private shows", in which teenagers sexually perform while following real-time instructions.
A six-month investigation by the Times found that such sites emerged largely unnoticed by authorities. "We've been aware of the use of the webcam and its potential use by exploiters," said Ernest Allen, chief of the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children. "But this is a variation on a theme that we haven't seen. It's unbelievable."
Some children end up as pornographic commodities inadvertently, appearing naked on webcams as a joke only to have their images put on sale. One website claims it has 140,000 images of "adolescents in cute panties exposing themselves on their teen webcams".
The scale of webcam pornography is unknown, because it is both new and extremely secretive. At least 585 for-pay webcam sites listed on one advertising portal were created by teenagers. In interviews with the Times this year, Justin Berry, now 19, provided evidence that other children were being exploited.
The Times persuaded Justin to abandon his business and contact the Justice Department. Investigators began arresting the people he identified as pornographers and traffickers in September and have targeted businesses that have aided these illegal sites, including credit card processors.
Monique Winkis, an FBI agent handling the case, said: "The fact we are getting so many potential targets, people who knowingly bought into a child pornographic website, could lead to hundreds of other subjects and potentially save hundreds of other kids that we are not aware of yet."
Thanks to Justin's co-operation, authorities say they have obtained a rare guide into this secluded online world.
"I didn't want these people to hurt any more kids," Justin said of his decision to turn federal witness. "I didn't want anyone else to live the life I lived."
Justin's teenage years make for harrowing reading but what is worrying is that his life before 2000 was like that of many American adolescents.
In 2000 he was a gangly 13-year-old who lived with his mother, stepfather and younger sister in Bakersfield, a midsized city north of Los Angeles.
Already he was so adept at the computer that he had registered his own small internet business, which he ran from his bedroom.
He was especially fascinated by webcams. "I didn't really have a lot of friends," he recalled, "and I thought having a webcam might help me make some new ones online, maybe even meet some girls my age."
As soon as he hooked one to his computer and loaded the software, his picture was automatically posted on spotlife.com, an internet directory of webcam users, along with his contact information. Then he waited to hear from other teenagers.
No one his age ever contacted him from that listing, only men.
Justin remembers his earliest conversations with these men were non-threatening and pleasant. His new friends were also generous. One explained how to put together a "wish-list" on Amazon.com, where Justin could ask for anything - computer equipment, toys, music CDs or movies.
But mostly the men filled the emotional void in Justin's life. His relationship with his real father was troubled. His parents divorced when he was young and the turmoil left Justin longing for paternal affection. "They complimented me all the time," Justin said. "They told me I was smart, they told me I was handsome."
Justin's mother, Karen Page, said she sensed nothing out of the ordinary, believing him to be a boy with a knack for computers. Whenever she asked about his new technology and money, Justin told her they were fruits of his internet development business. In a way, it was true: with one fan's help, he had by then opened his own pornographic site, called justinscam.com.
Justin began to feel he belonged to something important, a broad community of teenagers with their own businesses. Collectively, they were known by a name now commonplace in internet subculture - camwhores.
From the relative safety of his bedroom, Justin did not fully understand the dangers his fans posed. However, it was not long before he was lured from his home. A man he met online invited him to Michigan to attend a computer camp. Justin's mother allowed him to go, thinking the camp was worthwhile.
Justin said the man molested him, and again when he invited Justin back to Michigan on the promise of sex with a girl.
In early 2003 Justin's offline life began to unravel. A former classmate found pornographic videos from Justin's website, made copies, and distributed them around town, including to students at Justin's school. Justin said was taunted and beaten.
Then came another traumatic event. Knute Berry fled to Mexico after being charged with fraud related to the massage clinics he ran. Justin begged to join him, and his father agreed.
In Mexico, Justin's seemingly endless supply of money made his father suspicious. Justin confessed the details of his webcam business, and the reunion became a collaboration. Justin created a new website, which featured him having live sex with prostitutes. It was an immensely popular site, making Justin one of the internet's most sought after underage pornography stars. Justin said he shared the profits with his father in exchange for his father helping procure the prostitutes.
By the end of the year, Justin's life took a new turn when a subscriber named Greg Mitchel, a 36-year-old fast food restaurant manager from Virginia, asked to visit him. Seeing a chance to make more money, Justin agreed.
Over the next few months, Mitchel allegedly molested Justin many times. He is now in prison awaiting trial on six child pornography charges.
In 2004 Justin tried repeatedly to break free of this life. He roamed the US. He contemplated suicide and for a time sought solace in Christianity.
In June that year the Times anonymously made contact with Justin online. Although he feared this new contact might be an FBI agent, he agreed to a meeting. He says part of him hoped he would be arrested.
Over the next few days Justin revealed to the Times the inner workings of webcam pornography. He said he wanted to make his mother and grandmother proud of him.
He agreed to abandon his pornography business and talk to the authorities.
In late July, Justin met the FBI and identified children he believed were in the hands of adult predators. He listed the marketers, credit card processors and others who supported webcam child pornography. He also described the documentary evidence he had retained on his hard drives: financial information and transcripts of conversations with his customers.
Prosecutors agreed to grant Justin immunity, and he became a federal witness. FBI agents and prosecutors have targeted numerous potential defendants. Hundreds of thousands of computer files - including emails carrying vast array of illegal images - have been seized from around the country.
Justin himself has found a measure of control over his life. He revealed the details of his secret life to his family, has sought counselling, resumed his connection with his church and plans to attend college.
He has even recently returned to his mother's home in California. Before he left Ms Page drove him to the airport. Hugging him as they said goodbye, she said that the son she once knew had finally returned. Then, as tears welled in her eyes, she told him that she and his grandmother were proud of him.
I got this article from www.smh.com.au