Have you ever received an unsolicited nude image on your phone? Because 76% of girls aged 12 to 18 have.
Sending an unsolicited nude or sexual image is known as cyber-flashing; if the Online Safety Bill passes into law, then cyber-flashing will become a criminal offence with a possible maximum sentence of two years in prison. This change will allow courts in England and Wales to treat cyber-flashing as seriously as in-person flashing. Cyber-flashing has been illegal in Scotland since 2010.
Cyber-flashing can occur through any social media app or site where picture sharing can happen, such as Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat. Recently, actress Emily Atack has come forward to talk about the hundreds of explicit pictures and messages she receives every day through Instagram. Emily’s mother, comedian Kate Robbins, has said she is worried about the psychological impact that cyber-flashing is having on her daughter.
Professor Clare McGlynn, an expert in image-based sexual abuse, from Durham Law School, stated that the phycological effect of being cyber-flashed is just as harmful as when the offence is committed in person. Dr Christian Buckland, psychotherapist and a UKCP spokesperson, has said that cyber-flashing can lead to a victim developing anxiety, hyper-vigilance, depression and issues relating to substance abuse and that it can also cause problems in their personal relationships.
In-person flashing (indecent exposure) has been illegal in the UK since 1824, almost 200 years later in 2023, we are seeing the same crime in a new digital form. The law in England and Wales must catch up to encapsulate modern electronic versions of old crimes before legal loopholes are exploited.
Whilst cyber-flashing happens regularly on social media apps, it is most commonly committed through Apple AirDrop. Cyber-flashing can happen through AirDrop as the app allows anyone to send images, videos and documents without permission to another iPhone in a 30 feet radius. This means that cyber-flashing through AirDrop often happens in public spaces such as on public transport.
When you receive an image via AirDrop, you are shown a small preview image before you choose to accept or decline it, this means you can be exposed to cyber-flashing without even opening the AirDrop that has been sent. With cyber-flashing still not a criminal offence across the whole of the UK the problem and its prevalence is growing.
We are a part of a children’s coalition pushing for the Online Safety Bill to become law, this group consists of almost 40s organisations in the children’s sector. We think that the Online Safety Bill must have a swift passage through The House of Lords and should be enshrined in law as soon as possible. If cyber-flashing becomes a chargeable offence in England and Wales this should act as a deterrent for perpetrators and a vehicle of justice for victims.
Advice for how to prevent cyber-flashing:
Change the privacy settings in an iPhone (settings > general > AirDrop). The default setting for AirDrop is that you can receive them from ‘Everyone’, this can be changed to ‘Contacts Only’ or ‘Receiving Off’.
Having private accounts on social media where only ‘friends’ can send you messages will limit the risk of cyber-flashing but sadly it may not eliminate it.
It is important to report cyber-flashing when it occurs, this can be done through SWGfl’s ‘Report Harmful Content’ service: https://reportharmfulcontent.com/harms/