Friday, July 18, 2008

Justin Berry's story calls into question the use of webcams at home


Yesterday (July 18) Oprah Winfrey ran a report on Justin Berry, who had been seduced into the dark world of the Internet as a tween. The story was a repeat and I believe it had been aired in early 2006. Since it’s older, I think it is more appropriate here because it does bear on an Internet safety issue for parents. New York Times reporter Kurt Eichenwald appeared with Justin on the show and summed it up: parents should not allow their kids to have webcams for their computers. They have no legitimate use in the home. The link to the New York Times story by that reporter from Dec 19, 2005 still works and is here. According to the show, Kurt and Justin indulged in some "gonzo journalism" by going to a Manhattan electronics store, pretending to be customers, and asking what webcams are used for.

Now one could disagree with this. You see webcams in soap operas (even “Days of our Lives,” particularly with the now comatose character Jan). You plug it in to a USB port, and the visitor can see you as you talk. It is a bit like a picture phone. I suppose that employers or headhunters could ask you to use them for telephone screenings, except that this could run into discrimination issues.

I won’t repeat the sordid details of Justin’s story here. Now he is 21, and a public speaker on child safety on the Internet, and is also a federal witness. The Wikipedia story is here and it covers some of the detailed history. The article cites my doaskdotell website as a reference. On the Oprah broadcast, Justin maintains that at 13 he had no idea what would happen when he presented himself this way on the web.

The link for the Oprah broadcast recap, which includes a video clip, is here.

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