Airdrop

Teens Airdrop Porn for Laughs, but the Consequences Can Be Serious

The laws meant to protect minors from sexual abuse are a double-edged sword

Isaiah was waiting for his little sister’s middle school play to begin when a meme appeared on his phone, sent via AirDrop from an anonymous device. He knew it was the first strike in an AirDrop war, and he had to retaliate quickly.

He began sending as many memes in his arsenal as possible to anyone in the tiny auditorium with their AirDrop on. Just as the lights dimmed and the production began to start, he sent his kill shot to a random device: an image of “some furry smut my friend had posted to our Discord.”

Turning toward the group of giggling teens he’d just defeated, Isaiah caught a glimpse of his dad’s phone two seats away. To his horror, his dad was staring at the NSFW image he’d just sent.

Isaiah turned off his phone off, stared at the stage and tried to look as innocent as possible. “I live with that on my conscience to this day.”

Why AirDrop Is the Weapon of Choice

Many teens use AirDrop, an easy way to send files from one Apple device to another, for digital flash-mobbing. In crowded areas like a subway station or school cafeteria, they send around anything in their photo library, including memes, test answers, study guides and selfies. In June, writing for the Atlantic, Taylor Lorenz wrote about how adults get caught in teen AirDrop crossfires. “[AirDrop] is an open communication platform, so people are going to use it in all the standard ways teens use open social platforms,” Lorenz explains. That means meeting up and having fun — but also “dating, sexting and bullying each other.”

AirDrop wars often start innocently, but they can turn explicit. “There’s nothing deep about it. We just think it’s funny to send porn or memes to each other and see everyone’s reaction,” says Sarhi, a 16-year-old from Texas. With AirDrop, it’s fun to see how much things can escalate. “If I send someone Thanos’ dick, I hope the person I sent that pic to sends me something too,” Sarhi says.

Legal Consequences Can Be Serious

A nude Thanos isn’t what underage AirDroppers ought to worry about. The consequences of sharing Pornhub videos with a classmate can be serious. Though adults can legally trade porn clips, two teens consensually sharing those same videos are potentially violating the law, says revenge-porn expert Mary Anne Franks, professor of law at Miami University. “The definition, loosely speaking, of child exploitation and child pornography at both the state and federal level is basically creating or distributing child exploitation material,” Franks says, noting that certain laws prevent any distribution of sexually explicit material to minors. “These laws were written at a time when the presumption was anyone who is doing that is probably some adult who is trying to groom a minor,” she explains. “What we’re talking about is peer-to-peer sharing, which is different but may not actually take them out of the realm of the law.”

As for nude selfies and videos, laws governing consensual sexting among two minors are even more stringent. Most states outlaw minors from sexting in any capacity, even if consensual. Colorado’s Supreme Court ruled in June that a 15-year-old boy must register as a sex offender after trading nudes with two girls ages 17 and 15.

We’re Protecting — and Punishing — the Wrong People

Revenge porn — sharing nudes without the subject’s consent — complicates matters even more. “Last year there was a picture of two freshmen having sex in the band hall going around social media,” Elizabeth, a 16-year-old from San Antonio, Texas, tells me. “It was also AirDropped.” AirDropping a classmate’s nude photo breaks more than child pornography laws. “There’s now, in 46 states, the potential to be in trouble under nonconsensual pornography laws,” says Franks, noting most sexting cases are governed federally. “It’s not focused on the fact that it’s minors. It’s focused on the fact that you didn’t have permission.”

It’s ironic, Franks says, that legal protections against revenge porn aren’t enacted nationwide, while overly stringent laws can force minors who consensually sext other minors to register as lifetime sex offenders. “We’re overprotecting minors from behavior they actually consent to, and we’re underprotecting people from behaviors they might not have consented to,” she explains.

Anonymous Attacks

Because AirDrops can be sent anonymously, many senders of these explicit images go unknown and without punishment. The mystery is, after all, the appeal of an AirDrop war.

Last year, Brianna, a 15-year-old from Southern Michigan, was on the bus home from high school when everyone with an iPhone received an AirDropped photo of a completely naked man, followed by an onslaught of obscene photos, she says. “Some other people on the bus and I started looking around for the person who sent the AirDrop. We couldn’t guess from the name,” she says. The AirDrop porn attack went on for weeks. After a few students reported the incidents to the bus driver and school administration, the bus porn stopped, but the bandit was never caught.

While it’s hard for schools to find the culprits of anonymous AirDrops, some districts have taken preventative measures. A computer technician at an Eastern Connecticut public school district, who requested to remain anonymous, says he disabled AirDrop on all student iPads to “cover our ass” after a student reported receiving porn via AirDrop on a personal phone.

Accidental AirDrops Are Common

Occasionally, the wrong person finds themselves in the crossfire. Daniel, a 19-year-old who grew up outside of Stockholm, Sweden, graduated from high school in May. One of his fondest ways to past time in class was AirDropping porn and memes with another gay friend in class — until one explicit photo was accidentally routed to a conservative classmate. “It didn’t help that she’s quite the drama queen and exaggerates if she gets the opportunity to. She began screaming, making a huge fuss of the situation,” Daniel says.

Isaiah has cooled it on AirDropping porn after sending his dad the furry fanart. He’ll only deploy it in an AirDrop war that goes over four or five minutes when he says people become are more tolerant to X-rated humor. But why porn, of all things they could send? Do they understand the consequences? “We know it’s illegal, but it kind of just slips out,” he says. “We’re all just immature and think it’s funny.”