Snapchat is a social media app built around sharing photos in private messages (called snaps) that disappear shortly after they’re seen. Snapchat's audience is young, with more than 350 million Snapchatters (60% of all users) being under age 24. The feature of disappearing messages caters to them and has driven the app's surge in popularity among its Gen Z users, many of whom view Snapchat as an anonymous messaging channel.
That perception may be causing problems for the company. Snapchat is currently under investigation by the United States Justice Department and Federal Bureau of Investigation for drug sales taking place on the app. The investigations are mostly targeting the sale of fentanyl, which has played a part in many recent teen deaths.
Counterfeit pills laced with fentanyl are common, and there is a concerning number of other stories like this one. Medical Press discusses a recent lawsuit brought against Snapchat by the families of 8 victims ages 15-22 who died from January 2021-August 2022. Each of these victims purchased a drug on Snapchat that they thought was a prescription pill, and each of them turned out to be unknowingly buying pills with enough fentanyl to overdose.
Mostly because it’s convenient. Snapchat’s feature of disappearing messages makes it difficult for drug deals to be tracked. It’s not just Snapchat, though; Instagram, Tiktok, Facebook, Twitter, and even YouTube have been used for buying and selling drugs.
Most of these apps have “story” features, so users can post something that will only last 24 hours. Dealers can also simply post and delete things later themselves.
Investigators have also found that teens are using emojis as a type of code for drugs when they set up deals on social media, where different sets of emojis represent specific substances. See the Drug Enforcement Administration's (DEA) information on emoji use here, as part of their One Pill Can Kill campaign.
The DEA says that once a connection has been made from an advertisement on Snapchat or another social site, dealers will sometimes move the conversation to an app that makes conversations even harder to trace, like WhatsApp, Signal or Telegram. Once a deal has been made, payments can be conveniently exchanged through popular payment apps like Venmo or CashApp.
Teens have access to deadly drugs with essentially no way to trace the exchanges.
The Growing Danger
The total number of drug overdoses in the U.S. was above 100,000 for the first time in 2021 according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fentanyl and other opioids like it can be blamed for over 60% of those overdose deaths, and cases of teen deaths from counterfeit pills containing fentanyl are becoming too common.
With little to no saved information from interactions and posts, social media provides a perfect platform for drug dealers to take advantage of teens’ vulnerability.
The simplest way to combat this is by providing education to teens.