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Do your kids have an iPhone? They may be at risk for “cyber flashing.”

Updated: May 15, 2019

Sooner or later, your kids will get a phone – it is inevitable due to social pressure at school and among friends. In most cases, your kids will want an iPhone. It has been estimated that 82% of teens in the US own an iPhone rather than an Android device (1). That is all fine; iPhones are great products. However, iPhones are also unique in that they allow something called “cyber flashing” to occur (2). The reason for this is the popular AirDrop feature. AirDrop allows users to send a picture to another iPhone via a wireless connection if the two phones are close to each other – usually the same room or just adjacent rooms (3). Once received, a preview of the photo will appear on the phone’s screen asking to accept the file transfer. The preview is where things can go wrong. That preview photo might be something your child may not want to see: Someone could send your child an explicit or abusive picture to their phone. Moreover, your child would have to see it and look at it.

When using the default settings of AirDrop, the picture appears on your iPhone before you confirm that you want to receive it. You can decline the message, but you cannot “unsee” what you have just seen. For children, this can be traumatic and unsettling. It can also be used for cyber bullying when sharing a scary picture or making threats. While a relatively new phenomenon, news outlets report several cases of cyber flashing happening in the UK (4) and Australia (5). How common is cyber flashing? That is unclear, as the sender of the pictures can essentially remain anonymous. The message coming in via AirDrop is not tied to any identifier such as a phone number or Apple ID, but just to the phone’s name, which can be easily changed by the user.

What can you as a parent do? The first thing to do is to talk to your kids. Have they ever experienced this and what happened? If they have been receiving unwanted images or documents, they should tell an adult. Make sure they feel comfortable talking with you about this. Second, while Apple could fix the issue by changing how AirDrop works (5), you should not wait for them to act. Instead, you can change the default settings of AirDrop on your child’s phone to avoid cyber flashing. Go to Settings, General, AirDrop, and set it to “Contacts only” or “Off.” While this may limit the functionality of your child’s iPhone, it beats getting some creepy images while riding on the bus. It is sad to see technology abused to target our children. Try to stay one step ahead by understanding the features of your child’s gadgets at least well enough to tell them how to secure their devices and protect their privacy.


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