'Cyber flashing': a gross and growing risk for our digital daughters

It’s often not taken seriously, yet it’s the online version of physical flashing in the street - and it’s a growing problem for young women and girls.

“As a mum of a young girl, I know I’m going to have to talk to her about it when someone cyber flashes her - and that’s a sad prospect.”

YouTuber Paige Nicholson has every reason to worry for her daughter. Receiving unwanted, and often repeated, pictures of a stranger’s penis online has been a disturbing fact of life for the 29-year-old since she was a teen. 

A recent survey by UK-based news site the Independent found that 32 percent of girls said they’d received a photo of a penis that they didn’t want. And cyber experts report that cyberflashing surged massively during lockdown. Even more worrying, the practice is a known gateway to further violence and abuse.

This video shows how AirDrop works to allow strangers to "drop" unwanted photos onto others' screens in public. 

The wink-wink, nudge-nudge term “dick pic” trivialises what is in fact a serious form of abuse targeting young and often vulnerable women. 

“It’s often not taken seriously, yet it’s the online version of physical flashing in the street, and it’s a growing problem,” says Durham University law professor Clare McGlynn QC. 

“Many women experience cyberflashing as a sexual intrusion, often inducing real and paralysing fear.”

For younger women and girls, the impact can be even more damaging.

Flashing is flashing

McGlynn debunks the notion that cyber flashing is by definition less traumatic than in-person flashing. Different women will naturally experience the harm differently, she acknowledges - but those with a history of violence or abuse are especially at risk.

“Some women come from horrific backgrounds of abuse and assault and seeing things like this unprovoked could massively trigger them.” 

Cyber flashing can happen on any interactive platform and is common across Snapchat, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp, iMessage and a range of dating apps.

Apple's AirDrop feature

It’s also common for cyber flashing to occur in public, using Apple’s AirDrop feature. Public transport can be a particularly vulnerable space. (See video, above.)

One young target recounted to HuffPost UK an experience on a commuter train when, while browsing on her phone, she suddenly received an AirDropped sexual image from an unidentified fellow passenger.

“With cyber flashing, because you don’t know who’s sent it, and you’re in a public space, the threat is never really eliminated."

“I’d never used AirDrop so it took me a couple of seconds to work out exactly what was happening. I rushed to decline it and then just felt a bit sick.

“With cyber flashing, because you don’t know who’s sent it, and you’re in a public space, that threat is never really eliminated,” she says. “Both are a complete invasion of your private space, whether physically or digitally, and both forms completely blindside you and take you by surprise.”

Tackling the problem

Legal responses to the problem of cyber flashing have been gathering pace in recent times. In the UK, a forthcoming OnLine Harms Bill will deal with the issue. Scotland has already enacted legislation against it. 

In the meantime, community-based initiatives to educate schoolchildren - like the controversial “Don’t Be A Dick” program - are another form of resistance. There is even a DickPicLocator online, which can pinpoint where a photo was taken using GPS coordinates. 

The risk that cyber flashing will become normalised for our children is perhaps the scariest prospect. 

“Let’s call it what it is: sexual harassment,” insists one target. “Cyber flashing is the dark side of social media that needs to be dealt with.”

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Topics: Cyber Bullying, Parental Controls, Screen time, Mobile Apps, Excessive Device Usage, Social Media, online abuse, cyber flashing, dick pics

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