Seeking Pills, Young People Head to Social Media, With Deadly Results

Now, when Snapchat users search for “fenta,” “xanax” or other drug language, the results are blocked. They are redirected to an in-app video channel with content from nonprofit groups and the C.D.C. that addresses “fentapills” — the dangers of purported OxyContin, Percocet, Xanax and Adderall.

According to Facebook’s latest community standards report, it took action on four million drug-related exchanges worldwide in the fourth quarter of 2021. Instagram took action on 1.2 million, figures which represent alerts from both users and pre-emptive detection technology.

On Instagram, one recent search for Percocet did set off an automatic warning and an offer of help. But it also yielded numerous results, including an account that posted photos of the pills and contact information, with phone numbers on the encrypted messaging apps Wickr and WhatsApp.

And when companies remove dealers from their platforms, many sellers simply leapfrog to another.

“We detect about 10,000 new drug-related accounts a month,” said Dr. Mackey, whose software company detects illicit online drug trafficking for private and public organizations.

Most drug seekers will not baldly search for a drug by name, he said. They may use a hashtag with a celebrity associated with it. Enterprising dealers troll comments for customers, inserting themselves in online exchanges among seekers of pain relief.

During the pandemic, drug use has surged as mental health among young adults and teenagers has deteriorated, studies show. Young people tend to eschew heroin, not only because of its addictive properties but also because of a skittishness about syringes, say experts in adolescent behavior. Pills, with the false imprimatur of medical authority, appear safer. Moreover, to their generation, prescription medications — for anxiety, depression and focus — have become normalized.

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