Thirteen-year-old Billy opened Instagram and typed “buy Xanax” into the search bar. Instantly, the platform auto-filled dozens of results for him. He clicked on one of the suggested accounts and quickly connected to a social media drug dealer.
It took Billy all of five seconds and just two clicks to find illegal drugs through Instagram.
Fortunately, in this case, Billy was part of a research project on social media drug dealers. But it’s happening in real life, too.
Researchers Show the Ease of Social Media Drug Dealing
Researchers at the Tech Transparency Project set up Instagram accounts representing several 13- to 15-year-old users. And what they found was alarming. On average, it took two clicks for the hypothetical teen to find a drug dealer.
The researchers reported, “Not only did Instagram allow the hypothetical teens to easily search for age-restricted and illegal drugs, but the platform’s algorithms helped the underage accounts connect directly with drug dealers selling everything from opioids to party drugs.”
A Meta (Facebook and Instagram’s parent company) spokesperson contended that drug sales are strictly prohibited on Instagram. And that they’ve improved detection technology to identify and remove content related to drug sales.
But Meta’s improved efforts aren’t stopping teens like Billy. Instagram can ban hashtags for illegal substances, but what’s the point when the algorithm recommends alternatives instead?
Drug Dealers Sell Online Without Fear
Researchers found that many dealers “mention drugs directly in their account names to advertise their services.” With such bold use of Instagram to sell their drugs, many online drug dealers are using the app without fear of consequences.
And similar deals are happening on Snapchat. On this platform, photos or videos automatically disappear after they’re viewed. Chats also disappear on the app. Obviously, this is an appealing platform for social media drug dealers.
According to surveys, 81 percent of teens use Instagram and 77 percent of teens use Snapchat—a susceptible community for social media drug dealers.
These apps provide an ideal platform for drug dealers to engage potential buyers. And buyers who respond to these ads often receive life-threatening drugs.
Social Media Drug Dealers Leave a Trail of Destruction
On social media, drug dealers often prey on teens to make sales. In some cases, they also sell deadly drugs to unsuspecting buyers. A teen may think they’re buying oxycodone or Xanax. Instead, they end up with fentanyl-laced pills—or even pure fentanyl.
Zach was one of those victims.
One morning, Zach left his house to meet a drug dealer from Snapchat. And he never made it home. “He died right in front of the house on the curb, alone,” Zach’s father said.
Zach bought a pill over Snapchat laced with enough fentanyl to kill five grown men.
Fourteen-year-old Alex took one pill he thought was OxyContin. His mother admitted, “I had no idea that one pill would kill him. He had ordered an illegally manufactured pill right off of social media as easily as ordering a pizza.”
Alondra, age 14, responded to a Snapchat advertisement for pills—which turned out to be fentanyl. By the next morning, Alondra was dead.
And 16-year-old Sammy died after taking a single pill that he thought was Xanax.
Zach. Alex. Alondra. Sammy. So many others. These tragedies represent an explosion of drug-related deaths among teens who purchased drugs through social media.
Exposing Online Drug Dealers, Fake Pills, and Fentanyl
Experts reported that many tragedies are caused by “a flood of fentanyl-filled counterfeit pills being sold on social media and sometimes delivered straight to kids’ homes.”
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that’s 50 times stronger than heroin. As a result, the substance is currently the leading cause of overdose deaths in the United States. In 2021, the DEA seized 20.4 million fake pills, and 40 percent of these pills contained a lethal dose of fentanyl.
These deadly, fake pills find their way into teens’ hands through social media drug dealers. One pill containing fentanyl is more than enough to kill.
“What is happening on our platforms—and all across social media and technology platforms—is that young people who are suffering from mental health and stress induced by the pandemic … are reaching for substances, oftentimes pills and opioids,” said Jennifer Park Stout, vice president of global public policy at Snapchat. “But these substances are laced with fentanyl, enough fentanyl to kill them.”
Katey McPherson, child advocate with Bark for Schools, added, “More steps are needed to strengthen parental controls like allowing parents to know who their kids are talking to.”
Snapchat needs to take a holistic approach to the dangers of online drug dealers, and “parents should talk to their kids and know how they are using all social media apps,” McPherson warned.
Zach’s parents—along with many others who’ve lost their teens—want Snapchat and Instagram to do more to prevent these tragic deaths. But can these powerful companies be held accountable?
Check back tomorrow to read more about parents’ outcries and the response from Instagram and Snapchat in part two of our series—Social Media Drug Dealers II: Are Snapchat and IG Really Protecting Teens?
If you or someone you love is experiencing a substance use disorder, help is available. Call 800-926-9037 (Who Answers?) today to speak with a treatment specialist.
Photos by Canva