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Illegal Drug Sales on Social Media: How SnapChat is Stepping Up to Face the Fentanyl Crisis

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The fentanyl crisis is not new to the United States, but it is growing in concern. Fentanyl is perhaps the most dangerous drug out on the streets today, with the smallest dose – about a grain of sand – being potentially deadly for users. The problem is, it is becoming more widely available. Today, many drugs sold illicitly (such as heroin, counterfeit painkillers, and cocaine) are being laced with fentanyl without users’ knowledge. This is leading to a sharp increase in fentanyl overdoses. The group most affected by opioid-related overdoses are young adults, though an increasing number of teens are also of concern.

When hearing this news, parents often wonder where their kids are getting access to these drugs. Where are illicit drugs being sold, and how are teens and young adults getting their hands on such dangerous substances? According to new research, many illegal drug sales are happening online and via social media, particularly since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

In late September 2021, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) issued a public safety alert about the rising number of counterfeit, prescription pills containing fentanyl. According to the DEA, “Fake prescription pills are widely accessible and often sold on social media and e-commerce platforms – making them available to anyone with a smartphone, including teens and young adults. These counterfeit pills have been seized by DEA in every U.S. state, and in unprecedented quantities.”

The Connection Between Teen Drug Use & Social Media

When the pandemic started, going to school and seeing friends was simply out of the question. Many teens used social media to maintain connections with others. However, some are now using social media as a means to purchase and sell drugs, which can also be delivered directly to their homes.

According to Dr. Kelsey Bradshaw, a clinical child psychologist with Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital, “Social media has become a way for young people to communicate with others. Naturally, these platforms have also become a way that they communicate their needs for substances, and people try to take advantage of that because they assume there’s more anonymity.” Teens may be buying drugs out of boredom, isolation, existing substance use issues, or mental health struggles. 

SnapChat, a popular social media platform among young adults and some teenagers, commissioned research from Morning Consult in response to the growing concerns about social media and drug use. The survey was designed to understand how young people perceive drugs and fentanyl. Their findings indicated that young adults and teenagers in the United States today are facing significant mental health challenges, connected to high levels of stress. This isn’t surprising, given the pandemic and the politically-fueled turmoil that we’ve faced in the last year. Almost 90% of those surveyed (ages 13 to 24) reported that people their age feel overwhelmed.

The study also found that young people are seeking coping strategies for their stress, and many are turning to drug abuse. About 1 in 5 Gen Zers have thought about abusing prescription drugs, and 84% agree that “coping with stress and anxiety” is a key reason people use drugs. Unfortunately, young people also lack resources and education about the dangers of drug abuse and specifically, the deadliness of fentanyl and its presence in common drugs of choice. Nearly 1 in 4 youth said they did not have enough information about fentanyl to know how dangerous it is.

How SnapChat is Tackling the Fentanyl Crisis

In a statement issued on October 7, 2021, SnapChat wrote: “We have heard devastating stories from families impacted by this [fentanyl] crisis, including cases where fentanyl-laced counterfeit pills were purchased from drug dealers on Snapchat. We are determined to remove illegal drug sales from our platform, and we have been investing in proactive detection and collaboration with law enforcement to hold drug dealers accountable for the harm they are causing our community.”

In the past year, SnapChat has expanded its Law Enforcement Operations team, which responds to law enforcement requests on the platform, and has enabled them to do so much more quickly. Additionally, SnapChat has worked to improve its proactive detection capabilities, helping to remove drug dealers from the platform before they are able to reach the SnapChat community. The statement reports that nearly two-thirds of drug-related content is now detected proactively by artificial intelligence systems, which is then supplemented by their enforcement team and community reports of drug-related content.

“We are also working on new family safety tools to provide more ways for parents to partner together with their teenagers to stay safe on Snapchat.”

One effort is to increase education about the dangers of drug abuse and the risks of fentanyl. SnapChat commissioned a research study so that youth and parents alike could be better educated about the dangers that exist. At the time, only 37 percent of teens and young adults surveyed reported fentanyl as “extremely dangerous.” A greater percentage reported that cocaine and heroin were the most dangerous drugs. An alarmingly low number of youth were unaware of fentanyl being laced into other illegal drugs. 

As a result, SnapChat also developed a new, in-app education portal called “Heads Up.” The portal distributes content from expert organizations, including the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), to teens, young adults, and other users of the platform. When a user searches for drug-related keywords, “Heads Up” will show relevant, educational content designed to prevent drug use—such as raising awareness about the dangers of fentanyl.

“We will continue to work to strike the right balance between safety and privacy on our platform so that we can empower our community to express themselves without fear of harm,” SnapChat wrote.

What Parents Can Do 

In the wake of the fentanyl crisis and the growing number of youth having access to these drugs, parents must stay educated and aware. Most of all, parents should stay involved with their children’s lives and their use of social media. Ask your son or daughter about their day, who they are hanging out with, who they are talking to, and how they are feeling. Are they feeling overwhelmed by the current pandemic? Are they struggling with stress at school, or elsewhere in their life? If you are concerned about drug use, don’t hesitate to ask your teen questions and make space for a supportive, honest, and judgement-free conversation. Staying open with your child and encouraging them to come to you during times of need can be critical in preventing drug abuse.

At the same time, be sure to talk to your teen about the dangers of drug abuse and the presence of fentanyl in illicit drugs. Fentanyl has now become a common entity on the streets, and according to the DEA, the United States is “flooding” with “lethal counterfeit pills.” Fentanyl can be found in drugs that look like Xanax, OxyContin, Vicodin, and even Adderall. It can also be found in illicit substances like cocaine and heroin. Today, you cannot trust anyone who is selling drugs, as there is risk they could be laced with this deadly substance. For more information about the increase in counterfeit pills, visit DEA.gov/onepill.

The only safe substances today are those prescribed directly by a trusted medical professional, and dispensed directly from a licensed pharmacist. These should only be taken under the direction of a physician, by the patient. Any usage outside of these parameters can be considered misuse or abuse. If you are concerned that your son or daughter is misusing drugs, or struggling with mental health issues that could lead to drug abuse, please do not hesitate to contact Turnbridge for guidance. Turnbridge is a recognized treatment center for teens and young adults struggling with substance abuse and mental health disorders. Call 877-581-1793 to learn more.