I grew up in the late 70’s and 80’s, and my social media was very different. I spent a lot of time in the 80’s listening to local and national radio stations. This would give me my fix of the latest music and inform me of any events that were taking place in the surrounding areas. MTV was a massive deal when it was launched in 1981 as it opened the world up to the music video.
My version to ‘DM’ someone, was either calling my friends from a house landline and actually speaking to them, or arranging a spot to meet after school. In terms of talking to people in different countries, it was really popular to have a ‘pen pal’ in the 80’s. As part of our French course we were encouraged to write to someone in France, so in essence we could practice the language. This was often the norm.
So when you tell a young person all of this now, they look at you as though you have beamed down from another planet. But ironically growing up in the era I did, feels very alien to what social media looks like now! This brings me onto to social media and drugs. At Gwent N-Gage, a young persons substance use service covering the Gwent region, we deliver a training package that looks at drug availability via certain social media platforms.
In September 2019, Volteface released a report called ‘DM For Details….Selling Drugs in the Age of Social Media‘. This looked at how social media was being used as a marketplace for illicit drugs and the impact it was having on young people. At the time, it reported that 24% of young people aged 13-17 said they saw the sale of illicit drugs on social media. Recently this report has been updated (November 2022) and recent figures now depict this has increased to 35%. This sparked an interest, and coupled with research and interviewing a number of young people throughout the Gwent area, they have provided us with current information about the culture of drugs on social media.
Some of the young people were asked which were the most popular forums now to buy drugs on. They spoke about Snapchat and Telegram, with ‘Instagram now dead in the water’. It’s not surprising with features on Snapchat, such as automatic deletion once the message has been read, a built in GPS where you can track people to the street they are on and friend suggestions, that this is a breeding ground for people to sell their wears. There was a time when if you wanted to pick up some weed or anything else, you would have to physically meet the dealer. However in todays offerings, you can snap someone and they will even deliver it to your door.
Image source: Monkey Business Images
Children born between 1997 and 2012 are known as ‘Generation Z’. It defines them as the first generation that have never known the world without the internet. We are now in ‘Generation Alpha’ and overtime, the more we see social media sites such as Snapchat offering a platform to buy and sell drugs, it will become the norm to young people and in many ways, desensitize them to the dangers.
You can pretty much get anything you desire. It is just about finding the new search phrases to fool the Artificial Intelligence (A.I) that now monitor most of these sites. If you manage that, you are good to go.
An up and coming platform is Telegram. This will not be news to many but you might be surprised how young people are advertising on their Snapchat for you to add them to their Telegram account. Telegram first hit the global news in terms of a drug market when it was published in the recent edition of the Global Drugs Survey 2021. It highlighted that a dark web digital market called ‘Televend’ was operating on there.
Telegram was first launched in 2013 by two Russian brothers, Nikolai and Pavel Durov. It boasts one of the best end to end encryption and offers a ‘self-destruct feature’ where you can set the time for this to happen. Apparently more bullet proof than WhatsApp. It doesn’t take a genius to fathom out why more and more people are turning to Telegram for that drug buying/selling experience. I recently downloaded telegram and wanted to find out how easy it was to access Televend. One of the appeals to this site, is that it is open 24/7 and is operated by ‘bots’. The ‘wannabe’ investigative journalist came out in me and within seconds I was on my way to buying some ‘Big Buddah Cheese’, a cannabis strain. This process took less time than to boil a kettle. As for the buying experience, it is simple and not to dissimilar to that of Amazon. The only difference is that you pay by cryptocurrency.
A screenshot of Televend and the buying process within the digital drug market. Please note, no substances were purchased.
We often have adults tell us that they have attended the social media & drugs course, both as a professional and parent. Concerns are raised and questions asked how they can best protect their young people. We talk about apps that you can download for the sole purpose of monitoring the activity on a young persons phone. The idea can seem very invasive for the young person but if there is an agreement between parent and child then these apps can be useful in protecting the welfare of young people. Instagram and Snapchat have released a Parent and Carers Guide, which covers topics such as ‘tips for talking to your teen’, ‘managing privacy’, ‘support around self-harm and negative thoughts’ and much more.
One adult recently shared that talking about this subject with their child simply resulted in having an open conversation. After attending our social media & drugs course, she said that she asked her daughter about some of the topics discussed and was surprised to hear that she already knew quite a lot about it. By not making it a taboo subject and generally being interested in the culture and the welfare of her children, opened up a discussion where she was able to offer the correct information and harm reduction.
So this brings us to the question: What should be happening in terms of ensuring these sites are doing more to monitor the buying and selling of drugs?
In 2019, the Government published the Online Harms White Paper, which outlined a plan of action to address harmful behaviour online. This has since transformed into the Online Safety Bill, which is currently going through Parliament. The legislation aims to hold social media platforms, and search engines, accountable for the content their users post and are exposed to. All platforms will need to make an effort to tackle illegal content such as terrorist material and child sexual exploitation/abuse. Platforms that are most likely to be accessed by children will have an extra duty of care to protect young people from content that is harmful, but not necessarily illegal, such as self-harm.
With Ofcom positioned as the regulator for the Online Safety Regime, businesses who do not comply with the legislation will be fined £18m or 10% of their global annual turnover (whichever is higher) and may face further disruption, such as having their activity blocked. Senior managers who fail to take action could also face criminal sanctions.
Blah Blah Blah Blah….that is what these legislations often turn into.
As a result, in November 2022, measures that were intended to force big technology platforms to take down “legal but harmful” materials were removed from the Online Safety Bill. Instead, platforms will be obliged to introduce systems that will allow the users to better filter out the harmful content they don’t want to see.
So there you have it. If someone dismantled the yellow brick road, Dorothy and the gang might never of found the great wizard. Personally, I don’t understand the U-turn in legislation, but what I do know is that people are becoming more and more inventive. As long as sites like Snapchat and Telegram allow this activity, the more we will see of the unlicensed selling of drugs.
Since social media has come such a long way since the 80’s, will we ever experience a generation that won’t have been exposed to social media again? Well, not in my lifetime, but If time travel does become a possibility, then I would love to see a world once more where connection and education is ‘our’ experience, not something we see on Tik Tok.
I’m off now to the Mother Planet Generation X….now where did I leave my ‘Just Seventeen?!’
Lisa Osmond works for Barod within the Young Person’s Gwent N-Gage service, primarily delivering training throughout the Gwent area. Lisa has worked in the substance awareness field for 19 years and is incredibly passionate about educating people about the current issues surrounding substance use.