By a Biometrica staffer
A few months ago, Reuters News analyzed data from the National Emergency Medical Services Information System, which represents almost 90% of all emergency responses in the U.S., and found that during the pandemic, “the rate of drug-related 911 calls for young people aged 20 and under increased by 43%.” This seemed to only scientifically confirm a trend that many healthcare professionals and parents have noticed in children over the last several years.
Teens buying drugs online is not a new or recent phenomenon. Rather, it has existed since the advent of the internet age, first, and later with social media, but has definitely been exacerbated by the pandemic. On one hand, existing factors noted to direct teens towards drug use (like early life stress, social isolation, and boredom) reached new heights. On the other hand, as schooling was pushed online, more children have been spending more hours online, multiplying the opportunities to trade drugs and interact with people who will sell them drugs, and even deliver them directly to doorsteps in some cases.
Also not fresh news is the fact that teens may gravitate towards drug use. For one, they are exploring and learning more about themselves and what it means to be an adult. They also are undergoing neurological change and development, and are, thus, more likely to engage in risky behavior, testing boundaries, and experimenting with new things. It is important to remember that this, according to experts, is normal at that age.
There are, however, other factors that may enhance the propensity to indulge in drugs, the government’s Get Smart About Drugs website says. This can be as banal as boredom, curiosity, or a desire to “feel good” and relax. They may also be inured to the riskiness of doing drugs, thinking it to not be that big a deal. On the other end of the spectrum, there are many teens dealing with mental and emotional issues who may be looking for a way to “numb” the pain.
With social media playing such a huge factor, kids are more likely to have self-esteem issues earlier in their life, meaning that they could see drug or alcohol use as a way to fit in, or they may even cave to peer pressure.
One important factor to keep in mind is that it is not just illegal drugs being bought and sold online. Increasingly, the drugs of choice are medicines and painkillers legal with a prescription, like Percocet, OxyContin, or Xanax. Increasingly, pills are being traded on social media platforms like Snapchat, as reported recently by NBC News.
The most popular online avenue for drug transactions, however, remains the dark web. On a basic level, parents are not always fully aware of what their children are doing online. To add to this problem, the built-in anonymity of the dark web makes it difficult for law enforcement to crack down. And, to compound the problem further, such trades are nowadays being executed through cryptocurrency, which are widely available and by nature unregulated by the government.
Legitimate versions of these meds can be fished out of parents’ medicine cabinets or bought from friends at school or parties. What is worrying is that there has been a recent rise in the number of counterfeit or fake pills available in the market, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) says. These drugs are produced by criminal drug networks who try to pass them off as authentic to the public. Teens may be particularly susceptible to these tricks.
The DEA says it is seizing such pills at “record rates.” In fact, the number of counterfeit pills laced with fentanyl seized by the DEA have shot up a whopping 430% since 2019. Further, two of every five pills that contain fentanyl have levels of that drug that are potentially lethal. Just a few days ago, the Justice Department said a two-month operation had resulted in the arrests of more than 800 people and the seizure of 1.8 million counterfeit pills laced with enough fentanyl to kill 700,000 people.
Fentanyl, of course, is quickly becoming the drug of choice for criminals. IT is easy to produce, highly profitable, and easy to smuggle as well. As the New York Times put it, “enough fentanyl to get nearly 50,000 people high can fit in a standard first-class envelope.”
What Can You Do?
There is no doubt that the preferred outcome by all parties involved would be for young people and teenagers not to consume drugs. But in the absence of a 100% foolproof method for ensuring that, the next best solution is to ensure that if they do experiment with drugs, they do not do so with counterfeit product or product cut with a deadlier substance that would greatly increase their risk of fatally overdosing.
Various sources list out a few easy tips for parents to take to mitigate the chance of their teens experimenting with drugs:
- Keep the communication lines open. Don’t only seek out closeness with your child when you’re worried something is wrong. Make sure you know about their interests, friends, etc.
- Keep an eye out for any changes in behavior that might indicate they are using drugs. This can include just a feeling they’re acting odd or not “right”; if they are suddenly unusually angry, depressed, quiet, or withdrawn; unusual sleeping patterns; and them seeming to suddenly have a lack of interest in things they used to enjoy. Physical signs can include sudden weight loss, bloodshot or watery eyes, and shakes or tremors.
- Make sure your teen knows the consequences. Because drugs can be so readily available online, kids may believe that they aren’t really that dangerous. It is important to impress upon them the effects of long-term drug addictions and how deadly substances like fentanyl are.
- Emphasize the dangers of buying from strangers or an unknown source at all (due to potential contamination or counterfeit product) as well as how deadly it can be to mix drugs together.
- Remind your teen about the legal implications of being caught in any kind of drug use or transaction. They may be held accountable and be punished if someone else is caught or if they are in any way associated with someone else’s accidental overdose.
These are more preventative methods. If a parent suspects their teen is already involved in drug use, there are other tips that may work, in addition to having an honest conversation:
- Move the computer into common spaces, so that web use can be monitored and checked. Make sure the teen knows why this is being done.
- As a secondary resort, check the teen’s search and browsing history on the computer and phone.
- Parents can also choose to install on their children’s devices “Parental-Control and Monitoring Apps,” or can implement Parental Locks on various apps and devices.
- Monitor delivered packages for any that may be unmarked or attempting to be discreet. As a first step, experts suggest asking the teen about the package, though it may be necessary to “stick around when they are opening the package.”
Experts point out that the conversations and steps outlined before might be uncomfortable for both the parent and the child. There may be anger and hurt involved on both sides, but it is important for the parent to stress that any such action is coming from a place of worry and love. Parents should also be prepared for an accusation that they are spying on their kid or don’t trust them — which, experts say, is technically true.
On the whole, the best method that government and adolescent psychology experts seem to agree on is forming a strong and open interpersonal relationship with your child, so that they feel safe to approach you when they are in trouble and so you can talk frankly about potential issues. This can also enhance their internal self-worth, which makes them less likely to cave to peer pressure when it comes to substance abuse.
The best preventative, proactive, and protective measure is for children to know they can expect honesty from their parents, and for them to feel loved and trusted. As a result, they may be more likely to confide in parents and seek out and take their advice when needed.
This type of healthy emotional and mental wellbeing, experts say, could put them in an emotionally stable place, such that they reject drugs when offered to them.
You can find pictures that compare authentic and counterfeit versions of many drugs here.