Snapchat. Instagram. The ‘plug’ emoji. How illegal drugs get targeted to kids online
Amy Neville knew something was horribly wrong as soon as she knocked on her son Alexander’s door.
The 14-year-old had a frenetic energy — she would often hear him shuffling through the night, and gaming was a full-body workout — but this morning it was eerily quiet. She describes it as a “flatness”; when she called his name and he didn’t respond, it felt as if all the energy had left the room.
She was not prepared for what would come next.
“It looked like he was sleeping on his beanbag chair,” Neville recalls. “His shoes were off, his phone was off to the side, it was like he had just gone to bed.
“Except he was blue and cold and he wasn’t breathing.”
Alexander fatally overdosed on fentanyl on June 23, 2020.
A single pill he bought on social media took his life. He thought the pill was OxyContin, an opioid painkiller, but it was in fact contaminated with enough fentanyl to kill several people.
He had confessed to his parents just two days earlier that he had started using pills over the previous 10 days, and the family was working on getting him into treatment.
Neville desperately tried to revive her son by delivering CPR as they awaited the ambulance, but it was too late.
“About 30 minutes later they pronounced him dead,” Neville says. “And about four minutes after that, I got a phone call from the treatment centre.”
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid about 100 times stronger than morphine and 50 times stronger than heroin. About two milligrams — equal to a pinch of salt — is enough to kill a person with no tolerance. The United States Drug Enforcement Administration has found that 42 per cent of pills tested for fentanyl contained at least that amount.
It’s the main driver of Canada’s opioid epidemic, which killed 7,560 people in 2021, or about 21 a day. It is often manufactured illicitly in labs in Mexico and China and sold as heroin or as counterfeit pharmaceuticals, especially OxyContin or Xanax, a sedative prescribed for anxiety that is popular among young people.
Online drug markets on the dark web have received much attention in recent years. But these days, young people don’t have to traverse the seedy corners of the web to find ultra-potent, potentially lethal drugs. They’re readily available on popular social media apps such as Instagram and especially Snapchat.
It’s something 15-year-old Abbey knows well. The West Kelowna, B.C., teenager is used to getting messages from older men she doesn’t know, which she quickly blocks.
As of late, she says she also gets messages on Snapchat advertising drugs about once a week.
They drug merchants are easy to spot. Their messages are typically quite blatant, sending photos of large quantities of drugs along with prices. Those who try to be more discreet will speak in the language of teenagers — emojis.
Snowflakes represent cocaine, a leaf is the symbol for cannabis and there is the ubiquitous “plug” emoji: signalling that person can hook you up.
“When I see it I’m like, ‘Oh, wow, that’s not really what I was expecting to see,’ ” Abbey says. “It’s just not shocking to me because I’ve seen it so much, I guess.”
In a sign of just how prevalent the issue has become, the DEA recently issued an “Emoji drug code” fact sheet for parents that explains the various emojis and symbols drug dealers use to push their products without alerting vigilant parents.
Abbey also uses Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat, but spends the most time on TikTok. She joined the platform when she was nine, back when it was still called Music.ly. She enjoys watching videos of people her age lip-synching to popular songs, edits of the Netflix show “Stranger Things” and other random clips that make her laugh.
Abbey smokes cannabis and says she has never tried any other drugs, but she frequently sees them advertised online. She describes seeing videos with “bags and bags” of cannabis, “bulk” quantities of unknown pills as well as large amounts of crystal meth. She’s even seen guns advertised on the platforms, she says.
Experts say drug dealers actively target teenagers and groom them to buy products they might not normally try. Parents such as Neville, who lives in California, say the social media companies aren’t doing enough to protect minors, and in some cases, their platforms make it easier for drug dealers to reach children.
It’s a cause of deep concern to parents such as Jennifer Cottell, who cares for Abbey, her granddaughter.
Cottell works in the shelter system and is part of a board that advises the B.C. government on its drug policy. She knows better than most how toxic the drug supply is. Fentanyl, in particular, is said to be in practically everything.
Cottell keeps a close eye on Abbey’s social media and says she has witnessed acquaintances and strangers messaging Abbey and advertising drugs for sale.
“It’s absolutely beyond alarming,” Cottell says. “I was horrified when I first saw that. I went to her phone, and I was like, what, what is that?”
Abbey says public posts advertising drugs on Instagram and Snapchat are regularly removed. But Snapchat is a messaging platform, so most posts are not public.
“Snapchat’s just more like, they come to you,” Abbey says. “A lot of the time you get videos sent to you and it’s just of all the stuff they have, whether it’s like cannabis, or I’ve seen like meth even or like Xanax.”
She often gets message and friend requests from strangers, explaining that Snapchat has a “Quick add” feature that shows people you may know, based on mutual friends or proximity.
“I have some random people on Snapchat from like, other countries,” Abbey said. “You can get randomly added and most people just add people they don’t know back, just because, I guess,” Abbey said.
In a statement to the Star, a Snapchat spokesperson said the platform is working to combat the issue through technology that proactively detects and shuts down content related to illegal drugs, by working with law enforcement and raising awareness about drugs directly on the app.
They added the app is not meant for talking to strangers.
“Snapchat is designed for communication between real friends, and we intentionally make it very difficult for young people to be found by people they don’t know,” the statement reads. “We have always had a zero-tolerance policy for using Snapchat to communicate about illicit drug transactions and our goal is to make Snapchat a prohibitive environment for those seeking to promote any of these activities.”
In a statement, Meta, Instagram’s parent company, said it also has a zero-tolerance policy and is constantly using technology to remove accounts or posts advertising illegal drugs.
“In 2022, we actioned on 1.8 million pieces of drug content, of which 96 (per cent) was proactively detected before anyone reported it to us. We will continue making improvements to keep people safe on Instagram,” a Meta spokesperson said.
Abbey says the most popular drug in her age group is “Molly,” or MDMA, also known as Ecstasy. She said she knows people at school who have overdosed and died and she worries about friends who are not up to speed on the drug market’s toxicity, as well as her younger sister, who uses many of the same apps.
“I have a lot of friends that would just sort of be like ‘I’ll do it because it’s fun’ … they don’t even think about it twice,” Abbey says.
Cottell, whose youngest is 10, said she’s seen crystal meth advertised to children on social media.
“They make them like candy … They’ll colour them, flavour it and pawn it off like Pop Rocks,” she said.
The social media companies have said they are constantly removing pages or users that advertise drugs and have made it harder to search for those terms.
Indeed, searching for terms such as fentanyl or Xanax on Facebook or Instagram produces no results, and sometimes brings up a warning that drug sales are not allowed and offers a link to get help for addiction. But it only took minutes for the Star to find several pages advertising drugs for sale by using alternative search terms.
Cottell says parents need to have an open line of communication with their kids and a safety plan, for example what to do if they don’t have a ride home from a party where the driver has been drinking.
“I have seen some really, really crazy things and I’ve had to have this conversation with my children,” she says. “They feel like I’m invading their privacy, but I’m trying to explain to them how absolutely dangerous this is.”
Amy Neville said the dealers are so brazen she’s actually had people advertising drugs for sale in the comments section of the Instagram page for the charitable foundation she founded in her son’s name.
Drug Free Kids Canada is an organization that educates parents on how to talk to their kids about drugs. Its research shows the average age of experimentation with alcohol is 13 while cannabis is 14.
Executive director Chantal Vallerand says one of the social media trends the group has observed is the vaping challenge, which spread widely on platforms such as TikTok. But its focus when it comes to pills is on parents’ medicine cabinets, as their focus groups indicate that 55 per cent of children who used a prescription drug said they got it at home.
“When it comes to pills, when we do focus group with kids,” Vallerand says, “kids will say, well, it’s safe because in their mind a pharmaceutical company made it.”
She says she does not want to downplay the danger of fentanyl-laced pills being sold on social media, but they haven’t had parents contacting them with that specific concern.
Shabbir Safdar is the executive director of the U.S.-based Partnership for Safe Medicines, an organization that keeps a spreadsheet listing deaths connected to fake pills purchased through Snapchat. It has linked 17 confirmed deaths to the application in 12 states.
He says law enforcement in the U.S. has expressed deep concerns about the issue, and he expects it will become a bigger topic of conversation in Canada as more people die. Last year, nearly 108,000 Americans died of opioid overdoses.
“This is the problem that’s coming your way — you’re about to get hit like you’re on vacation in a tsunami zone,” he says. “It’s gonna be bad.”
He says while law enforcement seems to be taking the issue more seriously, he’s more skeptical about the social media companies themselves.
“The companies say that they’re working on it, but social media companies are trying to get a handle on every kind of crime that happens on their platform,” Safdar says. “And for some reason, they’re not doing a very good job on this one.”
He says they seem to take terrorism content or child sexual abuse material more seriously, citing an example of a Facebook group his organization reported that was advertising drugs for sale.
“Facebook said that it did not violate community guidelines, despite the fact that there’s video of customers opening up the packages that they’ve received to prove that they actually got the products,” Safdar says, noting the page went through both human and automated review.
“We reported it over and over again,” he adds. “That stuff’s still online.”
One thing the companies have done is make it harder to search for terms like fentanyl or Xanax. But that can be counterproductive, because it prevents organizations and the public from reporting it, Safdar says.
And savvy drug dealers will just use lingo that young people are hip to, like “Xanny bars” instead of Xanax, he says.
Since she lost her son, Neville has dedicated her life to raising awareness about deadly drugs being sold on social media. She started a foundation in her son’s name and has organized protests at Snapchat’s headquarters in Santa Monica calling for change — she was there just last month.
Neville will remember Alexander for his bright curiosity — it was the filament that lit up his mind and sparked his imagination, inspiring a deep passion for history, skating, Lego and Pokemon cards.
It was also what got him interested in drugs. Alexander, who was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder, started smoking cannabis in 2019 and said it helped calm his mind and feel more in control of himself.
It caused friction in the family, and Neville says it was a constant “tug of war” to try to get him to stop.
Alexander had changed by Christmas break of 2019. He was moodier and less engaged with the family. They enrolled him in a mood and anxiety program that treated mild substance use, which seemed to have a positive effect.
But then the pandemic hit, and he couldn’t participate in much of the programming. Because Alexander had asthma, the family closely followed COVID restrictions. Alexander ended up spending a lot more time at home — and online.
It was June 2020 when the family started noticing major changes. Alexander was having intense mood swings, sleeping at odd times and had thrown up a couple times. One day in June, Alexander sat his parents down and said he needed to talk.
“He said I got some Oxy through a drug dealer on Snapchat. And it has a hold on me. And I don’t understand why,” Neville recalls.
“He said ‘I thought this would be fun. And it’s not.’ ”
That was on a Sunday night in June. The next day, they took steps to register Alexander for a treatment program. But that same night, he would take the pill that ended his life sometime after 9 p.m.
His mother found him on Tuesday morning.
“We were very confused,” Neville says. “Like, how could he have taken so much Oxy? How does this make sense after our conversation? Because this kid does not want to die.”
In fact, the pill was not OxyContin. Officials from the Orange County sheriff’s office said it had enough fentanyl to kill three or four people.
Neville is haunted by the days that followed after Alexander’s confession, where she says they didn’t realize the gravity of the situation.
“We thought we were still dealing with the old narrative of someone stole Grandma’s prescription and is selling it to friends. And that’s just not the case.”
Neville said she was aware of the illicit pill trade but fentanyl was not on her radar, nor was it being talked about.
“We were the parents that watched all the drug prevention programs at school … We were doing everything we were supposed to do,” Neville says.
“I tried to step up, to help him. I feel like that not having all the information is why Alex died. There’s a lot of factors here, but had we known about fentanyl, our reaction on that Sunday night would have been very different.”
While she says there are things she could have done differently for Alexander, her focus now is helping other parents navigate the world of social media and drugs.
She wants to see the social media companies make more of a concerted effort to police the platforms and wants to see Snapchat’s data, which it says has shown less drug activity due to its enforcement, audited by a third party.
She believes there are simple things they can do right now to make the platforms safer for minors, for example, stopping advertising to children.
“Kids don’t need an algorithm. You don’t need to know the kids’ information and history on there. Turn it off. Don’t advertise to kids, bottom line.”
Neville would also like to see the pervasive plug emoji removed from the platforms.
“Everybody knows the plug emoji is the hookup. Why is that plug emoji still so readily available? What is it needed for? Take it away.”
She’s not confident the companies are sincere in their commitment to make the platforms safer, because she believes it would affect their bottom line. So she’s also pushing for legislative change, which would force the companies’ hand.
She hopes she can help other parents avoid what her family has gone through.
“Maybe you have to temporarily suspend things until you fix it. I don’t know,” Neville says.
“Because as long as we’re still losing lives, how is this worth it?”
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