Getting assigned a story about teen pornography on Vine left me with a distinct feeling of dread. So many uncomfortable Google searches and Facebook queries lay ahead—not to mention the potential to end up on some pervert watch list.
But before I did anything, I hit up my go-to teen on all things teeny: a 16-year-old high school sophomore for whom I once babysat, and now follow on Instagram.
“Do you have any friends who post inappropriate videos on Vine?” I asked her. I was hoping she’d respond with a definite “No!” Instead, she replied, “Like how inappropriate?” How inappropriate?! My faith in humanity instantly sank.
VINE'S TERMS OF SERVICE
“By submitting, posting or displaying Content on or through the Services, you grant us a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license (with the right to sublicense) to use, copy, reproduce, process, adapt, modify, publish, transmit, display and distribute such Content in any and all media or distribution methods (now known or later developed).”
In short, Vine is allowed to do as it pleases with your, um, content.
Let’s be honest, no one really accidentally stumbles upon pornography online. But if you happen to be browsing for X-rated videos on Vine, you might—again, probably not accidentally—click on a clip portraying an underage teen. The video-sharing site can now be counted among the social media destinations for adolescents dabbling in pornography. As these youngsters flash their flesh via naked video selfies, they probably don’t realize that they, and not Vine, are on the hook for a crime.
Brandy Babe is allegedly a 15-year-old girl who takes requests and promises to give you a way to contact her directly if you reVine her videos. One of Brandy Babe’s productions has been reVined by users also claiming to be underage who have bawdy screen names like Teen Cock 15 and 14 Year Old Dick.
"So? I'm 16. I don't care about age at least she ain't 11"
HoneyBoy, Vine user
Some Vine users, including savvy teens, are trying to stop the underage pornographers. Many Vine users claiming to be under 18 have posted comments saying other users reported them for putting out explicit content, and some videos have comments from other teens warning users that the video was made by someone underage. For instance, a young lad calling himself HorneyBoy claims on his profile that he’s 16 and can no longer upload videos to Vine because he was reported too many times. His profile page was later shut down.
Below is a screen shot of user comments on a sexually explicit Vine video posted by Teenage Wh0r3. In the video caption, Teenage Wh0r3 explains that she is on her way to school, then asks her followers to post requests that she will try to answer after her classes.
Child pornography laws vary from state to state, but the crime could also be charged at the federal level. After speaking to several legal experts, online safety advocates and members of law enforcement, it is clear that whoever has connection to child pornography can be at risk for prosecution.
Regardless of who posts the video, everyone who has clicked on it or passed it around could end up in hot water. If you took the video, you are liable for creating child porn, even if it is a video of yourself. “If I saw a clip and shared it, I’m legally liable for distribution,” says Richard Guerry, founder and executive director of the Institute for Responsible Online and Cell Phone Communication, a nonprofit devoted to digital safety and awareness.
Pornographic images of children are not protected under First Amendment rights. State laws differ on the penalty for child pornography, but under federal jurisdiction a first-time offender accused of producing content will face fines and a statutory minimum of 15 to 30 years in prison.
These illegal, six-second videos blossomed in the Vine After Dark universe, a spinoff of #TwitterAfterDark, a hashtag commonly used to solicit explicit content over Twitter late at night. Vine’s underage problem keeps breeding a variety of coded hashtags (#hornyteen becomes #horn3yteenor #hornyt33n) that make it pretty much impossible to shut down entirely.
Technically, you need to be 17 or older to join Vine, but all you have to do is click “agree” on the pop-up window that asks you to verify your age. After I tested out hitting “disagree” the first time, Vine just gave me another chance to enter a legal age.
But this pseudo-digital age gate keeps Vine free from complying with the Federal Trade Commission’s Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act that applies to websites collecting information from children under the age of 13.
The law prohibits the creation, distribution, reception and possession of any visual depiction of sexually explicit content and that includes videos.
Vine didn’t respond to our three emails, nor did Twitter, the app’s parent company, even after we informed them that we had come across the explicit underage content.
But is a high school student’s nude video loop the same as child pornography? Marsha Levick, the deputy director and chief counsel of the Juvenile Law Center, doesn’t think so. While she doesn’t condone the behavior, posting these videos “doesn’t mean they’re criminals,” she says. As for prosecuting a teen for this indiscretion, Levick calls it “absolute folly.”
Of course, even if you don’t end up behind bars, that little porn clip could always come back to haunt you when you’re 23 and applying for a job.
Guerry laments the “blind decisions” teens make when choosing what to post on social media. Who really reads that fine print? It’s a safe bet that most teens don’t.
But Levick believes the burden of explaining the risks falls on the parent. “We have to educate our kids,” Levick says. “It’s our responsibility. This isn’t Vine’s fault.”