Kids and Drugs Online
Drug use is a major public health concern for all age groups. However, drug use among children is especially concerning.
Medical researchers have determined that the human brain continues to develop until age 26. Because of this, children experience a more difficult time with critical-thinking skills and impulse control, making them more susceptible to experimenting with drugs. Moreover, the fact that children’s brains are not fully developed increases the risk of long-term damage associated with even casual drug use.
Children are exhibiting drug-seeking behavior at a younger age than ever, whether out of curiosity, a perceived need to rebel, or because others in the home use drugs. This is partly due to the widespread availability of the internet, particularly social media.
How Do Children Obtain Drugs Through the Internet and Social Media Platforms?
According to a National Center for Education Statistics study, 95 percent of children between the ages of 3 and 18 accessed the internet at least occasionally. Drug dealers are privy to this fact and have devised ways to target the youngest consumers through social media platforms. For example, dealers brazenly create posts or run ads on social media platforms marketing illegal drugs. Of course, this practice violates the terms of service for all major social media platforms; however, in most cases, a platform merely removes the ad or post and possibly flags the account. In response, drug dealers can create new ads, posts, or accounts and start the process all over again.
While some online drug deals take place in person, most dealers prefer to conduct the transaction entirely online. For example, after a child responds to an ad, the dealer will typically suggest moving all communication to an encrypted communications app, such as WhatsApp. Here, the dealer arranges the details of the transaction. In most cases, dealers ask children to pay through Venmo, Zelle or Cash App. Once payment is complete, the dealer mails the drugs to the child.
Laws Governing Children’s Access to Drugs Online
Both state and federal law prohibits the possession and distribution of scheduled narcotics. While state laws vary, it is typical for the fact that a dealer sold drugs to a minor to be an aggravating circumstance, increasing the maximum punishment upon conviction. For example, under federal law, anyone convicted of selling drugs within 1,000 feet of a school zone faces twice the maximum sentence.
While there are laws that govern social media platforms, none of these laws serve to punish a platform for allowing users to post content that markets illegal drugs. However, all major social media companies have made at least modest efforts to police the sale of drugs on their platforms.
What Have the Social Media Platforms Done?
Social media platforms have taken steps to prevent drug dealers from reaching young children. For example, Instagram’s Community Guidelines provide, “We don’t allow support or praise of terrorism, organized crime or hate groups on Instagram. Offering sexual services and selling firearms and drugs are also prohibited.” To enforce the Guidelines, Instagram employs a team of people nationwide to review all content 24 hours a day. Instagram also provides a “built-in reporting option” for parents to flag offensive or illegal posts. The platform also allows individuals without an account to report a post.
Similarly, Snapchat’s Community Guidelines contain a similar prohibition: “Don’t use Snapchat for any illegal activities — including to buy or sell illegal drugs, contraband, counterfeit goods, or illegal weapons.” Snapchat also notes that it regularly supports law enforcement investigations and encourages users who identify illegal or inappropriate content to report it through the platform’s Safety Center.
Like the other platforms, Tiktok’s Community Guidelines prohibit “the depiction, promotion, or trade of drugs or other controlled substances,” which includes any content that “depicts or promotes drugs, drug consumption,” “offers the purchase, sale, trade, or solicitation of drugs or other controlled substances,” “provides information on how to buy illegal or controlled substances,” and “depicts or promotes the misuse of legal substances, or instruction on how to make homemade substances, in an effort to become intoxicated.” Users can also report any content that violates this policy by long-clicking on the video and then selecting the “report” option.
YouTube also has restrictions in place aimed at limiting minors’ exposure to drugs. For example, YouTube disallows any content that involves “hard drug use or creation,” which includes “[c]ontent that depicts abuse of or giving instructions on how to create hard drugs such as cocaine or opioids.” YouTube also clearly states that “[i]f you’re using links in your description to sell hard drugs, your channel will be terminated.”
What Can Parents Do?
While it may be tempting to take the “out of sight, out of mind” approach when it comes to children and drugs, parents should be proactive when it comes to informing their children about the dangers of drugs. This is especially the case for parents of adolescents because this age group spends the most time on social media platforms.
Parents should keep in mind that certain risk factors can dramatically increase the likelihood of a child being the target of an online drug dealer, such as:
- A family history of substance use;
- Parental use of drugs, even casually;
- A lack of parental supervision;
- Family rejection of a child’s sexual orientation or gender identity;
- A child’s association with delinquent peers or those with substance abuse issues;
- Lack of school connectedness;
- Poor performance in school;
- Past childhood sexual abuse; and
- Mental health issues.
Of course, in addition, parents should also discuss the basics of safely using the internet and social media platforms.
What Can Schools Do?
Young children especially spend the majority of their day at school. Thus, schools must take internet safety seriously, including students’ ability to access drugs online. Schools can do their part in preventing children from accessing drugs online by implementing restrictions on social media access on school computers and devices. In fact, schools can purchase software that will also block certain search terms that children and teens may use to search for drugs. Schools may also consider prohibiting personal cell phone use during the school day. However, these decisions are largely left up to individual school districts, resulting in a patchwork of difficult-to-navigate regulations.