Like most 16-year-olds, Renee's world is in her bedroom. She hangs out here with her friends, and spends hours on her computer.
But Renee isn't just sending e-mails or surfing the web aimlessly. She's running a highly profitable Internet business from here, one she says has earned her as much as $2,000 a month.
But what's she's doing in her bedroom would make a lot of mothers blush. Renee is a “Cam Girl” - just one of hundreds of young girls who compete for attention on the Web by putting webcam photos and videos of themselves online.
Her site gets thousands of visitors every day. But it isn't free: For four days it's $5.95; for a month it's $15.95; for six months it's $59.95.
What do you get for your money? There’s chat, information about how she does her hair and where she shops, and Renee’s daily journal.
Renee has also posted more than 500 photos on the site. Some of them are sweet, some are strange, many are provocative. There is no nudity, however.
Renee's mother Barbara claims she is mystified by Renee's virtual success, saying she has “no idea” why the site is so popular. “I hope it's her writing skills,” she says.
But Renee thinks differently: “They're hoping to see goodies. A lot of people think that my being 16 and on the Internet is horrible. But they fail to realize that I'm not getting nude.”
48 Hours promised to keep Renee's last name secret, and won't reveal where she lives. She and her mother say anonymity is what keeps customers where they want them: on the other side of the Web cam.
“I've had people who are around 54 go to my Web site. And it's kinda scary at first. It's like, ‘Why are these people here?’ I'm not anybody special. I'm just a little kid,” Renee says.
Her mother says that older guys will look at her daughter no matter what. “They look at her in the grocery store. So I mean they're gonna look at her no matter where she's at,” Barbara says.
Then, there is the money. In addition to the member fees, Renee also gets paid for directly linking her Web site to other Web sites, including one that is pornographic. That link paid her $600 to $800 a month.
“I was uncomfortable with it. But she made some pretty good money with it,” says Barbara.
There also a "wish list," where Renee asks for--and receives--gifts from admirers. The list has included such items as a Sony Playstation, a digital camera, and kitchen accessories. The gift givers usually remain totally anonymous.
After a few hours of shooting, Renee and her mother refused to co-operate further with 48 Hours, saying they didn’t like the questions about who visits the site and how much money Renee makes.
But if you think what Renee does is shocking, you haven't seen the half of it.
A year ago, Ashley Rose, then 14, and her friend Amber, then 17, were among more than 50 underage girls on a website called trueteenbabes.com. For $20 a month, members gained access to thousands of pictures.
“I was always interested in modeling,” says Amber. “But I just figured maybe as a way to get my face out there and start pursuing my modeling dreams.”
The pictures were “glamour shots,” she says.
At its peak, the site had thousands of paying members and brought in an estimated $60,000 a month. Ashley Rose and Amber were cashing in, too. For Web cam chats, they made $20 an hour. For photo shoots, they made $65 an hour.
And like every parent who had a daughter on the site, Ashley’s mother Robin signed a consent form giving Ashley permission to become a "True Teen Babe."
“I thought it was silly myself,” Robin says of the site. “I mean, several times I would say 'What are people paying?' I think the members were really lonely, it seems like it was their chance to talk to a model, to talk to a beautiful girl. It was very innocent.”
But then "48 Hours" showed Robin pictures that were taken for the web site of Ashley wearing lingerie, and a thong. Robin was troubled by the photos. “I haven't seen a lot of these,” she says.
Ashley admits that in those photos she is close to being nude, “but I'm not naked. And to be naked, that's porn, pornography. So I didn't do that,” says Ashley.
But the county sheriff disagreed about some of Ashley's and other girls' pictures, and said the site was illegal.
Although Ashley argued that the web site trueteenbabes.com that she appeared on was not pornographic, the Arapahoe County Sheriff's Office disagreed.
Last April they shut down the site and charged its owner and photographer, James Grady, with 880 counts of violating a specific Colorado statute against the Sexual Exploitation of Children. Grady is now in jail awaiting trial.
Mike Miller and Andy Contiguglia, Grady’s attorneys, say Colorado authorities have gone too far. More provocative material is out there, they say, much of it commercially available in books and magazines, and isn’t being prosecuted in Colorado. Plus, they argue, all the models had parental consent.
Sheriff Grayson Robinson is emphatic: “The young ladies involved were less than 18 years of age. They were put in a position to display their bodies. They wore rather flimsy, see-through material. Yet the body part was still exposed."
Robin, Ashley's mother, defends her participation in the site by saying she was only trying to help her daughter become a professional model.
But the Ford Modeling Agency in New York City, which represents nearly 300 teenage and child models, says they don’t surf the Web looking for models.
Robin now regrets allowing her daughter to model for the site. And Ashley has since hired a professional manager, who landed her a part in an independent film.
But the business of underage internet modeling continues, with sites that feature very young, pre-teen girls in provocative poses and clothing.
48 Hours joined one of the pre-teen sites, CindyModel.com, to see what members receive. For $14.95 a month, members gain access to hundreds of photos of an 11-year-old child. Members can also buy CDs packed with even more photos, and even a DVD with video of Cindy.
To prevent her fans from finding her, Cindy's last name and location are kept secret. But her photographer's name and contact information are available through the Web site.
“Our objective with Cindy of course is to have her be a commercial actress, possibly have her own television show,” says Newbury, who runs Cindy's site.
Newbury first put photos of Cindy on the Internet last April. At first, people could look for free, and on the first day, the site had 50 members. So Newbury decided to turn it into a pay site. There are now 400 paying members.
“If things stayed just the way they are right now, I would probably make about $50,000 a year,” he says. And Cindy makes as much as $450 a week. Her father, Gary, a plumber, says that's more than he makes some weeks.
Newbury says he wants to make Cindy a star. Her mother Tracy dreams of that too. “She’s having a blast. We all are,” says Tracy, who is in marketing.
Newbury spends more than 10 hours a day tending to his new business. He promotes Cindy aggressively and apparently it’s working. An online fan club devoted to her has over 4,000 members.
Some members even send in outfits for Cindy to model. That service costs $150. One man sent in a schoolgirl outfit for Cindy to model on line. Newbury says other people have sent in items he considers inappropriate, like thongs, which Cindy will not model.
Tracy says she doesn’t know much about who the members of her daughter's web site are. “Curt handles all that,” she says.
“A lot of the people who buy these, I’d say, are 40-year-old men,” Newbury says. He says that many members are middle-aged men and he admits that some of them are looking at the pictures sexually.
Dr. Fred Berlin, a psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins Univerity Hospital who treats patients with sexual disorders, says that an older man who belongs to the site is likely to have “something very different or abnormal about his sexual make-up.”
Why would an adult pay $15 every month to belong to this site? “I think adults who are doing this have some sort of infatuation with this youngster," says Berlin. "And I think in some cases they may have romantic fantasies. In some cases sexualized fantasies.”
Tracy says that older men will look at Cindy in real life, so why not online. “I would never exploit my daughter. I am promoting her natural beauty,” Tracy says.
Berlin says that there is a chance a determined member could find Cindy’s real address. Newbury worries about that too. But he says he keeps her identity secret. He admits, though, that he himself is more easily found. Members do have some contact with Cindy during bi-weekly "video chats", and some members apparently try to get even closer by sending Cindy gifts.
There is some legislation being introduced nationally that would ban child modeling Web sites in an effort to protect the child models. But for now, these Web sites are legal, and prospering.
“There may be a large number of people out there who are privately attracted to children, who don’t act on it. And as a society we’re going to have to figure out how we want to deal with it,” says Berlin.
[Via CBS News]