From Facebook to Twitter and every option in between, there are few Americans who don’t make social media a regular part of life. As of 2017, 69% of the population uses social media in some way or another, and usage is even higher among teens and young adults, with 98% engaged in at least one platform. Some favor one site over another, while others are equal opportunity users, establishing profiles on virtually every social media site without a second thought.
Preferences for social media platforms vary by everything from gender to age, with teens focused on newer, more visual platforms like Instagram and Pinterest while older adults are more likely to use more ubiquitous platforms, like Facebook.
While adults primarily use social sites to keep in contact with acquaintances from prior stages in life, highlight workplace achievements, and share life events, the world of social media for teenagers is radically different. Social usage drives everything from friendships to rivalries, providing young people with a platform through which to share everything – and in many cases, this does literally mean everything. From activities to plans and complaints, teens have plenty of outlets through which to share the ups and downs of young life. 71% of teens use more than one social media platform and 94% of teens are online on a daily basis, making the internet a primary point of contact for peers and strangers alike.
Young adults are eager and willing to share on social media, with 94% of those 14 to 17 sharing their real names, 94% sharing photos, 83% disclosing birth dates, 66% posting relationship status, 72% presenting hometown location, 85% revealing school names, and 53% sharing email addresses. Nothing is sacred online, and, as research demonstrates, this trend extends to drug use and abuse.
Social Sharing and Drug Use
Social media has effectively changed the ways in which individuals communicate, taking exchanges of words, pictures, thoughts, and ideas and moving them from an in-person format to a fully digital and omnipresent platform. Social media makes one’s entire social circle visible 24 hours a day, making it exceptionally easy to make contact about any subject for any reason.
The correlations between social media use and public acceptance of illicit behavior are no secret. With overall function aimed at sharing as much information as possible with as many people as possible, few topics are off limits. This, of course, includes drug use and abuse. From nonchalant images that show evidence of use in the background to intentional displays of possession or utilization by friends, friends of friends, and public figures, drug use is accepted as a form of expression on virtually every major platform. Teens and adults discuss use with one another, request access to supplies, and plan times to make deals, all in the public or semi-public eye of a vast network of connections.
The interactions between drug use and a desire to use are complex indeed. While some believe that continued exposure to drug-related content can be normalizing, others are less concerned, believing instead that drug-related content is likely to stay within circles of users who are prone to use with or without the presence and pressure of social media.
Bloomberg argues that drug use is simultaneously glamorized and normalized on social media, with posts by both friends and celebrity icons alike featuring high profile substances like alcohol, marijuana, and cocaine. With realistic portrayals from all sides, it’s easy for young adults and other impressionable individuals to believe that maybe there’s no harm in experimentation. And, with an instant way to contact those who have access to drugs or who advertise a drug-heavy lifestyle, getting involved is only a few keystrokes away.
While the complaints against social media are myriad, studies involving drug use are only adding fuel to the fire. One such analysis found deep correlations between social media use and subsequent drug abuse, indicating that there is indeed a valid connection between those who use social media and those who are willing to use drugs. By surveying 2,000 adolescents ages 12 to 17 about both social media use and lifestyle habits, researchers identified that teens using social media are two or more times as likely to have tried tobacco, alcohol, or marijuana.
It’s important to remember that correlation doesn’t necessarily equal causation, but it’s hard to deny the role of social sharing in the wide world of substance abuse. The founder and chairman of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, Joseph Califano, believes that while there may not be a direct cause and effect between Facebook, Twitter, and drug addiction, it’s likely that these kinds of platforms are inadvertently creating a new form of web-based peer pressure.
Take, for example, the use of prescription drugs. One study explored the connections between Twitter use and prescription drug purchase and use, observing over 3,389,771 related mentions over the course of a year. On average, 53.96% of those observed used prescription drug-related language, and 37.76% tagged or mentioned other users in their drug-specific posts, leading researchers to conclude that those who discuss drug use on Twitter are likely surrounded by others who do the same, leading to the potential for negative reinforcement.
Sharing By Platform
While a drug presence can be found on virtually all social media platforms, some are more popular than others. Different kinds of social networking sites cater to different kinds of users, creating a complex web of opportunity in which to discuss substance abuse.
Facebook, as the largest social networking site in the world, is among the most used for illicit purposes, with billions of groups, pages, and profiles through which to share content. However, searching for content on Facebook is among the least intuitive of all social media options; as Facebook’s privacy settings are the most sophisticated, usage is the most diverse, and hashtags aren’t commonly employed, users are left limited to existing social circles.
However, more and more users are doing what they can to remain searchable, utilizing profile names of strains of marijuana or other drug-specific details to make themselves visible to those sharing related content.
The hashtag – a word preceded by a hash symbol (#) that connects keywords and phrases – was born on Twitter and remains a dominant feature on virtually every post. Tracking drug-related content on Twitter is thus quite simple; hastags like #highlife, #wasted, and #drugproblem are easily evident among millions of accounts. In fact, many of these tags have hundreds of thousands of users, indicating a thriving culture of drug afficianados.
Instagram has attempted to frame itself as one of the least tolerant options for illegal drug discussions, promoting the knowledge that sharing images of drug use can lead to fines and jail time. In fact, an Instagram post featuring marijuana use is punishable by a fine of up to $150,000 or 18 months in jail. However, this isn’t stopping dedicated users, who manage to maintain lucrative networks of dealings that the site can’t seem to control, despite allegedly cracking down on related hashtags.
The video giant has long been a destination for drug details, with millions of videos about everything from making meth to using heroin. While YouTube has strict bans on illegal activity, many videos slide under the radar, at least for a while. In fact, YouTube has faced fire from state attorneys for distributing content associated with illegal drug use – and profiting from related ad revenue. YouTube has also been accused of poorly screening advertisements and allowing material supporting illegal causes to play before its videos.
The best and most popular option for drug-related chatter? Snapchat. As an app designed for keeping secrets, illicit information is right at home on this elusive platform. Unlike most social media sites that maintain a mass history of users’ activity, Snapchat is best used for communicating one on one. When “snaps” are sent, users can set a time period after which the snap disappears, as if it never existed at all. Particularly handy for drug dealers, Snapchat is quickly becoming the new home for all intoxicating substances.
Social Media Drug Policies
In an effort to curb illegal commentary on their platforms, virtually all social media websites maintain some sort of anti-drug policy. However, some sites are more thorough than others, allowing significant room for continued propagation of drug-related materials.
Facebook’s community standards directly address criminal activity:
- “We prohibit the use of Facebook to facilitate or organize criminal activity that causes physical harm to people, businesses or animals, or financial damage to people or businesses. We work with law enforcement when we believe there is a genuine risk of physical harm or direct threats to public safety.”
Furthermore, the platform also bans the sale of illegal goods, stating that:
- “We prohibit any attempts by private individuals to purchase, sell, or trade prescription drugs, marijuana, firearms or ammunition.”
Facebook’s commerce policy also bans the sale of “illegal, prescription or recreational drugs.” Nevertheless, the site has no ban on drug-related groups, pages, profiles, or post content, allowing free discussion on the use and abuse of illegal substances.
Twitter addresses drug use far more specifically than Facebook does; the platform employs a specific policy related to drug and drug paraphernalia, stating that “Twitter prohibits the promotion of drugs and drug paraphernalia globally.” This policy includes, but is not limited to:
- “Illegal drugs, where “drugs” means a substance sold to induce unnatural euphoria, unnatural highs or lows, psychoactive effects, or altered reality
- Substances marketed as “legal highs,” such as psilocybin mushrooms and salvia divinorum
- All accessories related to drug use, such as bongs, pipes, vaporizers and grinders
- Products and services furthering access to drugs, such as dispensary directories”
Twitter also bans the advertising of such items in its paid content, regardless of legality in any given location.
Instagram includes a drug policy in its Community Guidelines, stating:
- “Offering sexual services, buying or selling firearms and illegal or prescription drugs (even if it’s legal in your region) is also not allowed.”
Despite advising that posting photos of drugs could lead to jail time, the site does not actually have a policy that disallows images of drugs or individuals using drugs.
Snapchat has the fewest restrictions of all social media sites, befitting its start as an app designed to send “photos for peeks and not keeps.”
The Snapchat support page states simply: “Don’t use Snapchat for any illegal shenanigans.”
Pinterest addresses drug use on its community guidelines page, stating that:
- “We remove anything that promotes self-harm, such as self-mutilation, eating disorders or drug abuse. […] We remove content used to sell or buy regulated goods, such as drugs, alcohol, tobacco, firearms and other hazardous materials.”
- “Don’t do anything or post any content that violates laws or regulations.”
Pinterest also requests that all advertisers “obey applicable laws and regulations.”
YouTube includes drug use in its Harmful and Dangerous Content policy, stating:
- “We draw the line at content that intends to incite violence or encourage dangerous or illegal activities that have an inherent risk of serious physical harm or death. Videos that we consider to encourage dangerous or illegal activities include instructional bomb making, choking games, hard drug use, or other acts where serious injury may result.”
It is important to note that YouTube draws the line at “hard drug use,” leaving the door open for less dangerous substances or substances that enjoy limited legality, like marijuana.
YouTube does not permit advertising in drug-related videos, explaining that:
- “Video content that promotes or features the sale, use, or abuse of illegal drugs, regulated drugs or substances, or other dangerous products is not eligible for advertising.”
Additionally, YouTube utilizes a rating system for videos related to drug use, with options that include “None,” “Mild drug use,” and “Drug use.”
Drug Sales and Social Media
In addition to serving as a great place to share information about drug-fueled activities, social media is attracting attention for another illicit benefit: efficient drug dealing. Despite active policies against all forms of illegal transactions, thousands of drug dealers have now taken their wares to the confines of social media. And, unfortunately, many sites seem to be unable to stop the spread.
In many cases, online drug sales are a little less explicit than posting “does anyone want to buy some drugs?,” although this does indeed happen. Instead, dealers utilize their own slang, emojis, and hashtags to attract customers in the market for their products.
On Instagram, for example, many dealers use straight to the point hashtags like #weed4sale that users can search. They post photos of their wares for interested users, who can then then send Direct Messages, or DMs, to the dealers in question. Preliminary messaging can be done in the app, but transactional details are often moved to a third party platform, like Kik, WhatsApp, or SMS messaging. Money either changes hands in person, via a virtual wallet, through gift cards, or using a cryptocurrency like Bitcoin. In general, drugs are distributed face to face, although some dealers do send drugs via mail or a messenger.
On Facebook, drug dealing is rarer but still a possibility. Some dealers maintain groups or pages, while others work within their existing friend circle. Facebook’s Marketplace, which launched in 2016, was ripe with posts for drug sales in its early days, creating a booming local market through which countless dealers benefited. The platform’s launch also saw weapons, animals, and sexual services for sale – all in clear violation of Facebook’s policies. The site chalked this illegal activity up to an issue with its filters, but nevertheless, Facebook has served its purpose as a drug dealing destination.
Tinder, the dating app, has also seen a rise in online drug sales. While initially designed as a way to meet area singles based on GPS data, Tinder has now become a marketplace for illegal activity. While the profile system must be used – in which users view assorted profiles and swipe either left or right to approve or disapprove – users alter their display images to show drug icons like marijuana leaves or emojis like diamonds or pills to represent that they’re looking for drugs, not love. When users swipe right, they’re indicating that they want to purchase drugs for recreational use. Once a connection is made, users can begin to discuss the specifics using a private messaging feature. Grindr, a male on male alternative, has seen a similar rise in drug activity.
Research in Action
The magazine GQ performed social research in order to gauge the simplicity of purchasing drugs on the internet via social media. Magazine staff members followed to directions outlined on both Instagram and Tinder to see if it was, in fact, easier than buying a cup of coffee.
They started with Tinder, and instead of looking for telltale signs and emojis, attempted to match with everyone. This strategy failed, and no drugs were found. Instagram, however, was a little easier. The social media mavens followed every account that implied drug use, attempting to build a relationship with potential dealers. In the days that followed, ten accounts followed back. While some went mum once messaged, others responded with enthusiasm, directing them to Kik to set up a face-to-face meeting. No one requested shady payment options either; one enterprising dealer even suggested Paypal.
Within a week and a half, GQ was able to connect with plenty of available dealers without so much as breaking a sweat. Should drug users wish to buy, the internet is a market ready for action.
Social Media’s Preventative Measures
Despite the prevalence of drug-related postings, most social media sites claim to have a zero tolerance policy for illegal imagery and the sale of drugs and drug paraphernalia. However, reality and policy often differ greatly in many aspects of life, and social media is no different. Why? Because the social media landscape is so difficult to control.
As of June 2017, the social media world is absolutely enormous.
Facebook boasts a user base of 2 billion active accounts, YouTube has 1.5 billion, WhatsApp has 1.2 billion, Instagram has 700 million, Twitter has 328 million, and Snapchat, the newest of the bunch, maintains 25 million users. All in all, over 4 billion profiles exist among the most popular apps and platforms, and they all carry the potential for sharing drug-related information.
Each platform employs hundreds to thousands of individuals who scan pages, search for keywords, and filter hashtags looking for drug-related posts and content of other illegal nature, but with such a large audience, it’s almost impossible to find everyone guilty of drug-related postings – but that doesn’t stop sites from trying.
As a part of the analytics process, most sites track the data that goes on between users, including posts, direct messages, shares, groups, and more. This information is used in various ways to eliminate drug-related content where appropriate and can then be used in policy-making, targeting drug use in a number of applicable ways.
While different sites attempt to put a halt to drug-related material in different ways, most have some strategies in common.
However, only a small number of posts actually get reported, leaving plenty of illegal activity to fly under the radar. Most reports are limited to offensive content as well, leaving largely benign drug-themed posts untouched and easy to view.
Illegal posts can be found through other methods, of course. The words found within posts as well as any applicable hashtags can be used to flesh out unsavory activities, and that’s exactly what sites like Instagram are now doing. Instagram periodically cracks down on drug-related hashtags, like those that target sales. However, this is only a stop gap measure; as soon as some hashtags are ditched, others take their place.
Searching keywords used in posts and messages may involve calls to the police in severe situations. Facebook, for example, has been known to involve law enforcement when situations are serious.
Google is playing a part as well, especially in the drug addiction realm: ads for sketchy rehab sites are no longer appearing in search results, helping users to find legitimate resources first.
Banning, Blocking, and Deletion
Banning and deletion are the most common ways in which social media sites handle activity they deem to be illegal or unethical. Facebook routinely removes entire communities it finds to be unsavory, which, last year, included legal medical marijuana dispensaries. This year, it targeted all pages related to vaping. Social media sites are also known to ban individual profiles and groups, shutting down years of social history without so much as a warning.
Advertising can also fall victim to bans. Even in locations where legality isn’t an issue, Facebook, Google, and Twitter have banned all marijuana-themed ads.
The Problem With Preventative Measures
Obviously social media websites are working to handle the problem of drug use, but is it enough?
In short, no. Drug-related content, from pictures of recreational use to profiles dedicated to sales and distribution, dominates virtually every social media site, and measures to find, target, and control it are largely inefficient. YouTube is still full of videos about producing, using, and distributing drugs, and Instagram has thousands of drug dealers operating around the country. Despite best efforts, or any efforts, drug use still reigns supreme.
The Future of Social Media and Drug Use
Demonstrating over a decade of use and a popularity that’s only on the upswing, it is unlikely that social media will decline any time soon. With new sites arising on a near-daily basis and users eager to move from one platform to the next, social sharing, in some form or another, is likely here to stay for countless years into the future – and almost certainly longer than we could ever predict today.
And, as long as social media makes an impact on the pop culture landscape, it’s highly probable that drug use will play a prominent role. Without a sophisticated screening process to target and neutralize the attacks on social sharing and the propagation of illegal substances, normalizing drug use will continue for generations to come. How we – both users and site owners – choose to handle this cultural shift remains to be seen.
Interested in more research? See our recent research on The Prevalence Drug Use in Professional Sports.
https://www.centeronaddiction.org/addiction-research/reports/national-survey-american-attitudes-substance-abuse-teens-parents-2011 https://www.iisc.org/filesimages/Documents/Misc/Teens_Drugs%20Newsletter_Iowa.pdf http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/126/4/791
http://observer.com/2014/05/heres-every-statistic-you-could-want-on-instagram-drug-dealers/ http://www.complex.com/life/2016/06/digital-underground-weed-market http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/snapchat-instagram-cocaine-mdma-how-10812890