DEC 22, 2022

Is Lensa Safe for Kids?

What parents need to know about the new “Magic Avatar” Lensa feature.

By Abby Alger
Gabb Family Resources

Warning: Reader Discretion Advised

The following content may contain suggestive images. We believe it is important for parents to be aware of children’s potential exposure to harmful content. Only by being educated can parents make informed decisions and successfully navigate tough conversations with their kids.

Lensa touts itself as a photo editing app that can make “every photo perfect 365 days a year.”[1] The basic application can be a useful tool for retouching images. However, its latest add-on can do far more, with potential risk to kids.

What is Lensa’s “Magic Avatar”?

In its most recent update in November 2022, Lensa invites users to update their profile, promising that artificial intelligence (AI) will create “mind-blowing avatars based on your identity and various art styles.” [1] 

What can be concerning to parents are the risks using this app poses, from the hyper-sexualization of images, the reinforcement of unattainable beauty standards, the replacement of features of people of color with Western-centric features, and the lack of privacy protection. 

How Does Lensa Work?

Users download Lensa from the app store, with a year-long subscription costing $35.99. The Magic Avatar feature is an additional cost ranging from $3.99 for 50 avatars to $7.99 for 200. [2]

Lensa’s Image Submission Instructions

Instructions for Magic Avatar photo submission describe how users have the best chance at receiving avatars they will like.  

Lensa asks users to submit selfies that are: 

  • Taken close-up
  • Using a variety of angles 
  • Have a variety of facial expressions

They cite “Bad photo examples” as:

  • Group shots
  • Full-length
  • Kids
  • Covered faces
  • Animals
  • Monotonous pics
  • Nudes [8]

Sadly, the results are not always what users hope for.

Does Lensa Have Parental Controls?

Lensa does not have parental controls. Although the terms and conditions state that for the Magic Avatar add-on, submitted selfies should be of people 13-years and older, the age recommendation for the Lensa app is rated at 4-years and up. [1] There is no age-verification in place.

Given what has been reported about the potential for hyper-sexualized avatars, the diluting of ethnic features, and the slimming of bodies, certainly this app poses safety risks to children.

Lensa Uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) to Create Their Magic Avatars

Lensa uses Artificial Intelligence (AI) that has gathered and processed billions of images, artwork, and text from databases and the open web to “learn” how to generate these avatars, that in theory should resemble the images submitted by users, albeit in stylized ways. [3]

However, the AI doesn’t consistently produce representations of the user’s selfies. In fact, many users share that the app consistently generates hypersexualized, misogynistic avatars that may also replace ethnicity with Western European features.

[2] [4] [14]

The image to the right has been cropped, but you can see how the app takes liberties in their portrayal of users.

AI Lensa image next to real photo of woman

Lensa Accused of Creating Nude and Hypersexualized Images

It is highly concerning that in the first few weeks since the Magic Avatar update was released, women who have used the app have raised concerns that although they submitted fully-clothed selfies, the app has generated artwork that depicts them as topless. [2] [4] How can this happen?

Women who have used the app raise concerns that although they submitted fully-clothed selfies, the app has generated artwork that depicts implied or fully nude images.

Assistant Professor of Computer Science & Engineering at the University of Washington Aylin Caliskan explains how the AI used to power Lensa’s Magic Avatars may promote racial bias and misogyny. 

The avatars are created from billions of pictures and text scraped from the internet, and “ . . . because the internet is overflowing with images of naked or barely dressed women, and pictures reflecting sexist, racist stereotypes, the data set is also skewed toward these kinds of images.” [4]

Lensa has created nudes from fully-clothed images

Writers for The Guardian news outlet based in London shared that after uploading 10 fully clothed, Lensa delivered two nude avatars. One was topless from the waist up, and the other showed nipples through a wet tshirt. [13]

As problematic as this is for adult users, imagine the damage that can ensue when children use the app.

Many of the images produced by Lensa resemble soft pornography or leave little to the imagination. Using AI to create pornography is currently such a significant issue that the UK is trying to change its Online Safety Bill to include the sharing of AI pornography, without consent, as a crime. [16]

The Magic Avatar Alters Ethnicity

Racist stereotypes are overlooked by AI. Users of color have complained that their Lensa images are Anglicized. Many have noticed lighter skin tones, thinner noses, and light colored eyes. 

Asian users in particular have called out Lensa for being racist.

Some of the results are borderline racist [be]cause it just served me random Asian girls that looked like the source material wasn’t adjust[ed] at all as if we all look the same.

-Xandra van Wijk, Twitter @xndra
woman looking in a warped mirror

Is Lensa Safe for Kids?

The Magic Avatar add-on of the Lensa app is not safe for kids.

Kids are in a mental health crisis

The Surgeon General of the United States issued an advisory on Youth Mental Health in December of 2021 warning that young people are in crisis, with an increase of 40% of adolescents expressing persistent feelings of hopelessness compared to just over a decade ago. [6] 

New studies emerge every week that link social media’s negative impact on wellbeing. In fact, Meta’s internal studies found that ⅓ of teen girls who feel bad about their bodies feel worse when they use Instagram. [7]

Lensa’s avatars may contribute to the comparison trap kids using social media often fall into.

Unattainable beauty standards

The Lensa App itself may promote the damage that comes from unattainable beauty standards, promising perfect photos. [1] The Magic Avatar feature creates even more flawless images, and uses AI that seems to devolve a portion of the selfies of women and girls by creating avatars that are provocative and thin.

Plastic surgeons have received calls from prospective patients requesting to look like their AI avatar. Dr. Terry Dubrow warns that these expectations are not only unrealistic, they are also impossible. [17]

Advocate for loving one’s self and body, Aubrey Gordon, shares her experience using Lensa to create avatars. “Lensa is really working overtime to make “AI” me into a thin person . . . What a bummer/what a bore.” [14]

[14]

Anyone can upload images of other people

Lensa does not ask for verification that an image uploaded to their app is the user’s own, opening a gateway for users to exploit others without their knowledge. Once an avatar is generated, the user can save that file and use it wherever they want.

Sexting and cyberbullying on Lensa

Sexting is a common activity among today’s teenagers, and AI portraits can proliferate more ways to engage in these unhealthy activities by creating sensual images teens share with other peers or predators online. 

Adolescents could impulsively input a peer’s image into the app and share the results with classmates, impacting that child and possibly creating legal implications for themselves.

Revenge porn

There have been initial concerns that the avatars created by non-users have already been used in “revenge porn”. [15]

AI images magnify the possibilities for the creation of non-consensual pornography the sharing of intimate content publicly to harm a person’s reputation. With Lensa, sensual images can be completely fabricated through AI.

Vengeful ex-partners can upload a photo of their past love, find the most provocative AI avatar, and share it in an attempt to hurt their former partner’s reputation. 

What are Fake Nudes?

Fake nudes are fabricated disrobed photographs or artwork made to look like a real person, such as a celebrity. With accusations of Lensa producing underdressed and nude images from headshots, fake nudes may be a possibility.


What are Deep Fakes?

While the magic avatar creates art, some are realistic enough to be classified as deepfakes.

Child sexual sexploitation

Lensa is being accusused of generating child sexual exploitation images. [15]

While the app asks users to not upload images of children, there are no barriers to prevent it. Users have shared stories of uploading childhood images and being subsequently shocked at the avatars they received—adult bodies in sensual poses with childish faces. [2]

The idea that any photo of a minor online can be used to fabricate child pornographic avatars is a terrifying prospect.

Data Privacy on Lensa

Lensa’s data collection practices collect usage data, mobile device data, location data, internet protocol, IP address, and cookies, and then share them with third-party apps for analytical purposes.

According to Lensa, photos of the user are stored for 24 hours after the AI images are generated. From there, the photos are deleted from their database. [9] 

However, cybersecurity expert Andrew Couts says that without a backend audit of Lensa’s data collection systems, it’s impossible to really know what’s going on behind the scenes, and whether your teen’s photos are actually being deleted. [10]

The problem is that the AI-generating technology that Lensa uses intuitively learns from every AI image that it generates, using your image to learn how to make a more accurate image of another human face later on. [11] 

We may not know what the full effects of teaching AI how to accurately depict a human face is for the moment, but it’s certainly something to consider as you evaluate the risks to security of every given app. [12]

Lensa Is Not Designed for Kids

As the Magic Avatar feature is designed right now, it is not safe for young people. It uses AI called Stable Diffusion, which literally scrapes data from all parts of the web’s barrel, even the bottom of it. 

By using this model, explicit and Euro-centric images will dominate, with women and girls being more vulnerable to receiving avatars that promote body image dissatisfaction and a decreased value of the beauty of people of color.

The concluding phrase of the description on the app store ironically serves as a warning:

It’s nothing like you have ever seen, we promise.

—Lensa

Shop the Phone that started it all.

The Gabb Phone Z2—no internet, no social media, and no worries.

SHOP PHONE

Don’t leave empty wrist-ed.

The Gabb Watch is perfect for kids on the go—find out why.

SHOP WATCH

You have already liked this article!

Share this article with...