Social media sellers
Youth workers warn of rise in drugs purchases through social media
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.
“In the last 18 months we have gone from this way of getting drugs not being mentioned at all among the young people we work with to now nearly every young person talking about it. It is disturbing,” said Nick Hickmott, the early intervention lead for Young Addaction, the youth arm of the largest drug and alcohol charity.
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 Wickr.
Hickmott said: “We work with 10- to 24-year-olds but most of the work we do is with 13- to 17-year-olds. They are the ones talking about this and the reason we are seeing this rise is because of the growth of social media. Young people are just becoming more dependent on these platforms now as they are heavily integrated into all aspects of their life and so they are being used for more risk-taking behaviour.”
He said Instagram and Snapchat tended to be the platforms most used. One of his biggest concerns was teenagers buying drugs from strangers on these platforms.
“Essentially, if a dealer knows you, they are far less likely to want to see you ripped off or end up in hospital … If you are buying drugs on Instagram, for example, you are getting them from a stranger and the deals might involve meeting up in person.”
The youth worker said knowledge of dealers spread by word of mouth. “The majority of drugs on sale at the moment are cannabis but you can get any street substance through these sites. Particularly prevalent currently are party drugs like MDMA and ecstasy but we’re also seeing benzodiazepines such as Xanax being sold. What we’re concerned about is that there are clearly no age restrictions for dealers and a lot of young people use these sites,” he said.
Fiona Spargo-Mabbs, who founded the Daniel Spargo-Mabbs Foundation, a drugs education charity, after her son died from taking a lethal dose of MDMA, said the phenomenon would continue to grow “because it is such an easy way to reach lots of young people”.
She said: “It is a great gift for the supply chain and it is adult suppliers using the resources of young people and exploiting their savvy-ness in social media. It is particularly worrying because drugs are around young people in a way now that they were not maybe 10 years ago. Having them on social media like that makes them so much more available, and delivery to the door means you don’t need to be in a dark street corner or hang around with a drug dealer to buy them.”
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.
Hickmott agreed there should be more discussions about online sellers in schools but emphasised the duty of social media sites to close down as many sellers as possible.
Ian Hamilton, a lecturer in mental health at York University, said: “I would be in favour of social media networks taking the problem more seriously. They recently announced that they were putting a lot of resource cracking down on child exploitation online, which is good, but we need to make sure that there are also efforts to eliminate drug sales.”
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.