Police say it began years ago with graffiti vandals. They started videotaping one another spray painting buildings and trains.
Dozens of videos have been seized by the New York Police Department. Lt. Steve Mona says to the vandals the tapes are as important as the graffiti.
"In a way video is a way of proving, 'hey look what I did.' It might sound silly to us, but to them it's a really big deal," said Mona. Mona said these videos are a sort of trophy for the teens — something to show off to their friends.
But kids aren't just sharing these with their friends. Some of the tapes are being slickly packaged and sold for up to $25 apiece. Also for sale on the Internet are tapes of backyard fight clubs, home videos of kids imitating the violence they see on wrestling.
Reality TV — The Play-at-Home Version
Jane Buckingham, a marketing expert who studies teenage trends, said affordable video cameras and the popularity of reality TV are drawing more and more kids to videotaping. Buckingham said backyard wrestling and making movies are among the hottest trends with teens.
It's not just fake violence that kids are taping. The hottest video in this underground market is called Bum Fights — having reportedly sold over 300,000 copies at $20 apiece.
In Bum Fights, the young videomakers pay homeless people to fight one another, bash their heads into crates, tumble down stairs in a shopping cart, one man even pulls his teeth out with pliers. On the same tape is scene after scene of real street brawls among kids.
Violent streetfight videos are such a hot item one Internet site was offering $1,000 for tapes — advertising: "Got brawls? We'll make you famous."
One man who became famous from stunt videos is Johnny Knoxville, creator of MTV's Jackass.
Knoxville has become a cult hero among kids for his willingness to do all kinds of wacky things on videotape. And now he's moved from TV to the big screen.
Buckingham said a lot of young boys look up to Knoxville, because he struck it big. "Unfortunately, the crazier, the more outrageous, the more dangerous, the more they give him credit," Buckingham said.
A New Kind of ‘Scrapbook’
It's not just kids imitating their heroes or out to make money who are videotaping. It's a widespread new phenomenon called "scrapbooking," kids recording their lives on tape — the good, the bad, and sometimes the illegal.
Scott Heard and Nick Kenny are among the growing number of kids giving "scrapbooking" a shot. Most of the video they've shot of each other is harmless pictures of them skateboarding, boating, and surfing. Then, one summer day a few years ago they got into trouble.
"We were bored. We had nothing to do. And we're just farting around, doing whatever," Heard said.
Heard and Kenny took their camera into a bungalow scheduled for renovation and proceeded to tape themselves trashing the place.
Heard and Kenny said they didn't put a lot of thought into why they vandalized the bungalow. Heard said, "breaking stuff is fun" when you're young. It seems only slightly more thought was put into their decision to "scrapbook" the crime. Kenny said they did it "just so you can look back like later on, like even the next day, and look at the video and be like: Damn, I did that."
Mona described these kinds of tapes as "America's funniest, stupidest criminals."
A National Trend
Heard and Kenny aren't the only kids catching themselves on tape. Kids' videotapes have become the key piece of evidence in crimes committed across the country.
In Jacksonville, Fla., a group of teens are shown using drugs and vandalizing eight homes under construction.
In Waukesha, Wisc., two kids took pictures of themselves slashing tires and vandalizing cars.
In Madison, Ill., a group of kids taped themselves busting up neon signs and streetlights.
In southeastern Wisconsin, three teenagers taped each other smashing dozens of mailboxes with baseball bats.
"For a lot of these kids, the emotional gas pedal in their brain is in high gear and the braking system is not yet developed," according to David Walsh, an adolescent psychologist and president of the National Institute on Media and the Family.
"What's going on here is emotionally driven bragging status and these kids don't think ahead," he said.
The way Heard and Kenny describe it, Walsh seems to be on target. The boys said they liked sharing the tapes with their friends to show them what they did.
Heard and Kenny taped themselves doing more than just busting up a building. Officers who arrested them also found pictures of the boys setting a dead cat on fire on the tape.
Since there was no evidence that Heard and Kenny killed the cat before burning it, they were not charged with animal cruelty.
"Peer pressure is very, very powerful for adolescents and so if someone is holding the camera as they do it … these kids are probably doing things with that group that they might not do individually," Walsh said.
Some scrapbookers are taping themselves assaulting people, not animals. In California, a group of young men chased a guy down then beat and robbed him. In another incident one of them held the camera as another approached a motorist in a fast food line pretending to be selling hats and — unprovoked — slugged him in the face.
Another group of California youths taped each other randomly attacking bicyclists and pedestrians with paintball guns and, in one instance, with a baseball bat. The video helped convict the attackers — all of whom went to jail.
The Tape’s the Thing
Mona said scrapbookers have one thing in common. He said, "When we make an arrest and we have tape ... they don't care about the jail time, they don't care about the court time, all they want to know is … am I getting my tape back?"
Mona said they don't get their tapes back.
Although their video days are behind them, Heard and Kenny say they can't help but admire people like Knoxville.
Heard said, "I think he's funny as hell … living the American dream. You know? Hey, let's sit on our ass, videotape whatever the hell we want, do nothing, and then get money. That's great."