Social Media’s New Role in Adolescent Drug Use

By: Heather R. Hayes, M.Ed., LPC, CAI, CIP
January 31, 2018

Everyone is on social media. From 90-year-old grandmas who want to keep tabs on their grandchildren to 9-year-old kids watching their favorite YouTube celebrity, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone not well-versed in the world of Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. And teens are perhaps among the savviest of users. Only five years ago, 77% of teens and 86% of young adults were on Facebook, and we know those numbers have risen since then—and spread out among more popular teen-focused social media applications, such as Snapchat.1

The hashtags made popular on Twitter have moved to every social media site, making it simple to search for whatever you want. This is typically innocuous if your interests range from #ootd (outfit of the day) to #tbt (throwback Thursday), but it takes a darker turn when a 13-year-old searches #marijuana (which, as of the time of this blog has more than 9.5 million posts on Instagram).

Kids can find images of #party or #drunk as easily as they can find their online homework assignments, and research suggests that the more they see images of drug and alcohol use online, the more susceptible they are to using themselves.1 The Media Practice Model takes a slightly different view, stating that “adolescents choose and interact with media based on who they are, or who they want to be, in that moment,” and social media makes it all too easy to pick and choose your preferred persona.1

But today, the most worrying of all teen social media trends is the ability to buy drugs quickly and anonymously. There is no minimum age limit; dealers can connect directly with willing buyers as young as 13 via certain hashtags and emojis that symbolize what’s in stock and ready to move. People who work with teens note that in the last 18 months, buying drugs via social media went from being a relatively unknown subject to being the topic on nearly every teen’s lips.2

Youth workers note that cannabis is the most popular drug obtained through social media at the moment but that other drugs like MDMA, ecstasy, and Xanax are readily available, too.2 Snapchat and Instagram appear to be the most popular sites for teens to connect with dealers, who are perfect strangers to these kids for the most part.

This lack of personal connection also means a lack of concern about who these drugs are going to and how they might affect the—in this case, very young—user. The ease of accessibility is also a real concern because kids no longer have to venture out to questionable neighborhoods or meet-up locations to score drugs—they’re now delivered straight to their doors.2

While tighter regulations or restrictions on social media sites are appealing to some, others note that the problem is so widespread that these measures may be ultimately ineffective. Instead, youth workers note that clear and consistent education about the dangers of buying drugs online should be the first line of defense for parents and anyone else who works with teens.2 Start the hard conversations and keep them going. Together we can equip our kids with what they need to stay safe and thrive.

Sources

  1. 1. Moreno, M.A. & Whitehill, J.M. (2014). Influence of Social Media on Alcohol Use in Adolescents and Young Adults. Alcohol Research Current Reviews, 36(1), 91–100.
  2. 2. Marsh, S., The Guardian. (2017). Youth Workers Warn of Rise in Drugs Purchases Through Social Media.