Teens have easier access to drugs when illegal trafficking booms on social media

Last winter, Megan Macintosh found her 18-year-old son Chase unconscious after she said he was experimenting with pills. He died just over a month later, probably from a fentanyl pill from an unknown source.

Macintosh turned to his social media for answers. When she looked through her son’s Snapchat, she said she saw bags with pills and mushrooms. “I felt really helpless when there was really nothing I could do when I saw how prevalent it was, how many people were in his feed,” she said.

The drug trade is booming on social media, according to Kathleen Miles, who works for the Center on Illicit Networks and Transnational Organized Crime. “I think social media can be great, but it also has a very dark side,” Miles said.

With fentanyl in high circulation, the risks are often fatal. The U.S. first recorded more than 100,000 deaths from drug overdoses over a 12-month period, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is the highest number of deaths due to drug overdose ever recorded in a year.

The Drug Enforcement Administration has warned of the alarming increase in the availability and lethality of counterfeit prescription pills containing fentanyl and methamphetamine.

In her experience, Miles said teens on social media are two degrees apart from a drug dealer.

CBS News asked Miles to create two fake profiles on Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok, claiming they were 18 but publicly identified as high school students.

One was actively searching for drugs and found a sham dealer within 48 hours.

The second account used various hashtags like #depression, #sad and #anxiety. While all three social media platforms provided some resources for mental health, messages about marijuana and cigarettes also appeared on Instagram.

“By the third day, on Instagram,” Miles said, “we were completely immersed in drug culture.” For her, this culminated in a photo of someone appearing cocaine. Miles added that the tech companies bear responsibility. “Because they are not liable, they do not make the catch rails needed to keep our children safe.”

Snapchat told CBS News that it was “determined to do its part to eradicate drug trafficking.” Instagram said it will “continue to improve” to keep young people safe. According to the latest quarterly Transparency Report, TikTok has removed nearly 96% of drug-related videos within 24 hours. All three companies said they use technology to proactively remove this content.

The Macintosh has a message for other parents after the death of her son: “It was my child. It could be your child,” she said. Macintosh thinks it’s all about the approach. “Let’s have an honest conversation about why, how and what we as a family should do to keep you safe and happy.”

The full statements of Snapchat and Meta are below:

“The tragic drug epidemic calls for urgent action and we are determined to do our part to eradicate drug sales on Snapchat. We have raised awareness of the dangers of fentanyl fake pills directly in our app to inform young people about the deadly consequences.We use interesting technology including machine learning tools to proactively detect and remove drug related content on Snapchat.We also use third party detection tools to scan other platforms where drug dealers may try to contact Snapchatters.We working with law enforcement and partnering with parent groups, safety organizations and experts who inform all of these practices, and we are constantly evaluating where we can strengthen our work to combat this illegal activity. ” – Snapchat spokesperson

“We do not allow the sale of illegal drugs on Instagram. As a result of the technology we have developed to proactively find and remove this content, we now remove more than 96% of it before people report it. We will continue to make improvements to keep people safe on Instagram, especially the youngest members of our community. ” – Meta spokesperson

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