09 Jul 2024

In today's digital age, social media has become an integral part of daily life for millions of young people around the world. Platforms like Instagram, Snapchat, TikTok, and Twitter serve as conduits for social interaction, entertainment, and information sharing. However, amidst the viral dance challenges and influencers' lifestyle showcases, a darker trend has emerged: the increased accessibility of drugs.

The Double-Edged Sword of Connectivity

Social media's vast reach and connectivity, while offering numerous benefits, also facilitate the spread of illegal activities, including drug distribution. The anonymous and transient nature of certain social media platforms makes them ideal for illicit activities. Dealers exploit the ease of creating and discarding accounts to reach a wide audience quickly, often targeting vulnerable teenagers and young adults.

According to an article by the Guardian, Growing numbers of teenagers are buying illegal drugs on social media sites such as Instagram and Snapchat, experts have said.

Youth workers have raised concern about the trend, which they say has accelerated in the last year and a half. One said he had spoken to children as young as 13 who had bought drugs through such sites.

Social media sellers use hashtags and emojis to indicate what they stock, and share images of the substances. They provide alternative contact details, and most deals then take place on other platforms such as the encrypted messenger application Telegram.

Rehabs UK, Senior Treatment Advisor, Scott states:

"The experimentation of young people with drugs and alcohol is not new; however, social networking sites have created new and easy avenues for adolescents to encounter drug-related content. Teenagers are particularly sensitive to the influence of social media, as they are greatly affected by peer pressure and the desire to fit in. Platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat can expose them to both drug related content as well as drug dealers themselves which can increase the chances of using and accessing drugs"

The Appeal to Young Audiences

  1. Influence and Glamour: Social media influencers and celebrities often portray drug use as glamorous or a part of an elite lifestyle. Posts and stories featuring drug use at parties or festivals can normalise the behaviour and create a perception that such activities are trendy and harmless.
  2. Peer Pressure: The pressure to fit in and be accepted by peers can be magnified on social media. When young people see their friends or influencers they admire engaging in drug use, they may feel compelled to imitate these behaviours to gain social acceptance or popularity.
  3. Ease of Access: Direct messaging features on platforms like Instagram and Snapchat allow for private communication between dealers and potential buyers. The use of coded language, emojis, and hashtags further facilitates these interactions, making it challenging for authorities to track and intervene.

In a recent BBC documentary focusing on the party scene in Ibiza, they highlight the fact that drug dealers will contact those using hashtags on Instagram.

Zara said: "When i've posted that I'm in Ibizia in the past i will get 10 messages saying if I need drugs to WhatsApp them."

A Spanish police officer states when they arrested a drug dealer and looked at his phone there were messages on Instagram such as "What have you got? Are you selling pills"

Zara highlights that messages are untraceable and that's why using social media platforms is an easier way to sell drugs rather than street corners.

Statistical Insights

Recent studies and reports provide alarming statistics on the impact of social media on drug accessibility among young people:

  1. Increased Drug Purchases via social media: A study published in the National Centre for Biotechnology Information highlighted that around 54% of teenagers reported using social media to find and purchase drugs. The study underscores how social media platforms have become a significant marketplace for illegal substances.
  2. Rising Seizures of Illegally Traded Medicines: According to a report by the UK government on Operation Pangea, over the past 15 years, more than 25 million illegally traded medicines and devices were seized in the UK, valued at over £84 million. This includes a significant portion of transactions facilitated through social media platforms, indicating the vast scale of the problem.
  3. It appears the pandemic and the resulting lockdowns led to an increase in darknet drug purchases. This increase was mostly related to cannabis products as online cannabis sales increased by 27% during the first three months of the pandemic (EMCDDA, 2020b). The increase in online cannabis sales was primarily driven by a relatively dramatic increase in sales of smaller quantities as estimates of total revenue generated fell by 17% over the same period (EMCDDA, 2020b).

The Role of Social Media Algorithms

Social media algorithms are designed to keep users engaged by showing content that aligns with their interests and behaviours. Unfortunately, this can lead to the amplification of drug-related content. If a user interacts with posts related to drug use, the algorithm may serve more similar content, inadvertently promoting a cycle of exposure.

The Consequences of Increased Accessibility

The increased accessibility of drugs through social media has several significant consequences:

  1. Health Risks: Young people are particularly vulnerable to the harmful effects of drugs, including addiction, mental health issues, and physical health problems. The lack of regulation and quality control in the illicit drug market further exacerbates these risks.
  2. Legal Issues: Purchasing or distributing drugs is illegal and can lead to severe legal consequences, including arrest and imprisonment. Young people may not fully understand the legal ramifications of their actions on social media.
  3. Educational Impact: Drug use can negatively affect academic performance and lead to increased absenteeism, disengagement from school activities, and ultimately, a higher dropout rate.

Combating the Issue

Addressing the issue of drug accessibility on social media requires a multifaceted approach:

  1. Education and Awareness: Educating young people about the dangers of drug use and the deceptive nature of social media portrayals is crucial. Schools, parents, and community organizations should collaborate to provide accurate information and support.
  2. Parental Involvement: Parents should engage in open conversations with their children about social media usage and drug risks. Monitoring online activities and setting clear boundaries can help mitigate exposure.
  3. Platform Responsibility: Social media companies must take a proactive role in detecting and removing drug-related content. Improved algorithms, stronger enforcement of community guidelines, and collaboration with law enforcement can reduce the prevalence of illegal activities.
  4. Support Systems: Providing accessible mental health and addiction support services for young people can help those struggling with substance abuse issues. Early intervention is key to preventing long-term consequences.

Harry Sumnall, a professor in substance use at the Public Health Institute, said more research into the trend was needed. “The fact it is a growing trend doesn’t surprise me at all because e-commerce generally has developed substantially over the years and the first e-commerce transaction was actually a bag of marijuana,” he said.

It would be easy to say that social media platforms need to do more policing here to get these profiles shut down but I think there are so many sellers that it is impossible to do this. A better solution is making sure young people are educated about the risks of taking drugs and buying them online. The general advice about staying safe while on the web is relevant here,” he said.

When the Guardian reached out to both Snapchat and Instagram for comment they responded:

Instagram said it encouraged people to report any content that could violate its guidelines. A spokesperson said: “The Instagram community must follow the law and the sale of illegal or prescription drugs, even if legal in a specific region, is not allowed. We encourage anyone who comes across content like this to report it via our in-built reporting tools. Our global review team checks these reports 24/7, and as soon as we are made aware of violating content we work quickly to remove it.”

Snapchat said it took its responsibility to create a safe and secure experience seriously. It said it had an active trust and safety team that responded to reports and concerns within 24 hours.

There is no place for selling drugs on Snapchat. We encourage anyone who sees something like this anywhere to always report it,” a spokesperson said.

While social media offers numerous opportunities for connection and self-expression, it also presents significant risks, including the increased accessibility of drugs. By fostering education, awareness, and proactive measures from parents, educators, and social media platforms, we can work towards creating a safer online environment for young people. It is essential to recognise the power of social media in shaping behaviours and take collective action to protect the well-being of the next generation.

if you or someone you know is struggling with addiction please contact our fully trained Treatment Advisors today!