A December iPhone update gives parents a new tool to protect children online.
Parents who have their kids on a family sharing plan can turn on the "communication safety" feature in iOS 15.2. When the function is turned on, explicit photos sent to the child are blurred.
"[The child is] presented with helpful resources, and reassured it is okay if they do not want to view this photo," Apple said in a news release at the time of iOS 15.2's launch. "Similar protections are available if a child attempts to send photos that contain nudity."
"I think it's more common than most parents want to believe that kids are sending, sharing, storing explicit photos," said Ana Homayoun, an author who analyzed teenage internet habits in 2017's "Social Media Wellness."
The numbers back it up. A 2019 study found 1 in 5 middle, and high school students received a sexually explicit or suggestive message on their phone.
"This has been happening as long as there have been cell phones that have photos on them," Homayoun said. "This is not something new at all."
While the numbers were higher among high school juniors and seniors, 6.4% of 12-year-olds reported receiving an image of this kind. Homayoun said healthy parental involvement is key, but it looks different depending on the child's age.
"Think about the kind of conversation you want to have to keep your child safe," said Homayoun. "Is your child just starting to use the phone, and you need to have that conversation? Do you have a teenager who is making choices that might have long-term positive impacts? Or do you have an older child that's potentially in a relationship, that may not think that this relationship could end?"
Many teenagers are not fully aware of the risks of sending or receiving explicit photos.
"At the very basic level," Homayoun said, "it's illegal to send, store and share photos, even if you're a minor and it's consensual. Most people don't know that. The laws vary by jurisdiction, but there are different consequences for this behavior. There are also the social, emotional and psychological risks for children, and the vulnerability in terms of blackmailing, in terms of shaming, in terms of bullying."
While Homayoun believes it is important to protect children, she applauded Apple for limiting the scope of its new tool.
The original version would have sent a notification to parents if a child under 13 was sending or receiving explicit photos. This feature was not included in the iOS 15.2 release.
"There's no way for any company to assure that the conversation that would happen would be safe and effective with a parent or a parental guardian," said Homayoun. "For students who are LGBTQ+ and maybe their family doesn't know, or maybe they're exploring different identities, that would be a moment in which sharing or sending an update might not be appropriate."
The goal, Homayoun said, is to have calm, productive conversations with children.
"Parents can panic without knowing the full story, and that is really concerning to me," Homayoun said. "There's a level of panic that often happens when people get warnings, where they don't stop to think and process and make good decisions as adults. And so many of the decisions that happen when kids feel panicked are the ones we really worry about."
She encourages parents to focus on the three S's: Healthy socialization, effective self-regulation, and overall safety.
"After 'Social Media Wellness' came out, we did interviews and surveys at different schools, and between 5-10% of students would tell me that they didn't have an adult or a student that they could turn to if something happened online that was concerning," Homayoun said. "We need every child to know that no matter what happens, they have trusted adults that they can reach out to if something doesn't go as planned online."