Parents have understood the importance of keeping an eye on teens’ social media activity for years. There are concerns about the platforms being used for online bullying and inappropriate sexual messaging, as well as used by adult predators to contact youths. With the arrival of COVID-19 and related restrictions — keeping kids out of school and extracurricular activities — new concerns have come up regarding social media also becoming a way to sell and purchase drugs.
According to a report in the Journal of Substance Use Treatment, the COVID-19 pandemic has intensified the risk factors for adolescent substance use — which include early life stress, social isolation and boredom — during a time when kids are also experiencing natural physical, cognitive and social-emotional changes.
At the same time, more kids have turned to social media as a means to connect with others when in-person connection has been challenging, if not impossible. But along with interacting with friends, some kids are communicating with people offering the opportunity to purchase drugs, many of which can be delivered directly to their homes.
“The purchasing of illicit drugs via social media platforms is probably happening more because of the pandemic, but it’s not something that’s new,” says Dr. Kelsey Bradshaw, a clinical child psychologist with Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital. “Social media has become a way for young people to communicate with others. Naturally, these platforms have also become a way that they communicate their needs for substances, and people try to take advantage of that because they assume there’s more anonymity.”
While Dr. Bradshaw suggests that the young people who are purchasing drugs through social media are likely those already involved in substance use, he notes that the increased isolation and boredom could intensify teens’ curiosity for trying drugs. “Many young people are feeling isolated due to limitations of attending school, engaging in activities or seeing friends,” he says. “For some, this may increase consideration of trying drugs for recreation or to cope.”
An increased risk for overdose and death
However, kids are not always getting the substance they intended to purchase. Some unknowingly buy and ingest drugs laced with lethal substances, like fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that is up to 80 to 100 times more potent than morphine. Fentanyl is illicitly added to pills incorrectly labeled as common pain, antianxiety, ADHD or other prescription medications, and sold to unsuspecting buyers, potentially leading to overdose and even death.
Late last year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a health advisory stating that overdose deaths had reached an all-time high in the U.S. due to increased synthetic opioid-related deaths. In San Diego County, a 202% increase in fentanyl-related overdose deaths was recorded in just 1 year, from 151 deaths in 2019 to 457 deaths in 2020. It’s become such a crisis that county officials are now offering naloxone, a medication designed to rapidly reverse an opioid overdose, at no cost and without a prescription to any person at risk of an overdose or to their loved ones.
What parents can do
So, how can parents ensure kids don’t seek out illegal substances — either online or in person — and what signs of potential drug use should parents watch for? Dr. Bradshaw encourages parents to have discussions with their children and monitor their technology and social media for issues beyond just substance use.
“It’s about having those preemptive discussions,” he says. “When it comes to technology and social media use, it’s important to have a good foundation of regularly monitoring kids’ use and having early discussions regarding your expectations and rules surrounding them.”
Signs to watch for
While it can be challenging for parents to determine if changes in behavior are due to pandemic-related stress and isolation or might be related to drug use, Dr. Bradshaw recommends parents watch for these signs:
- Their child just doesn’t seem “right” or to be acting like themselves
- Their behavior isn’t typical — acting despondent, aggressive, angry or with fewer inhibitions
- They are sleeping more than usual or up at unusual hours
- They are withdrawn or acting more secretive
- They are no longer interested in friendships or things they once enjoyed
- They are showing physical changes, such as sudden weight loss, frequent nosebleeds, bloodshot or watery eyes, or shakes and tremors
Conversations to have
“When you’re noticing any of these signs or have other concerns, it’s time to have a conversation about what might be going on,” Dr. Bradshaw says. “You can gradually bring it up, perhaps by saying something along the lines of, ‘I’m noticing this and I just want to talk to you about it.’”
Dr. Bradshaw suggests that parents refrain from immediately becoming punitive or adamant about setting limits on social media use. Rather, start with an openness to listen to the child and hear their thoughts on the subject and whether they might need help.
He says that conversations about drug use can be held in 2 phases. The first is meant to be exploratory, as opposed to confrontational.
When simply checking in with their child, Dr. Bradshaw suggests parents might say, “I’m hearing these stories about kids trying drugs for the first time by purchasing them on social media, and then some of the kids accidentally overdose because there’s fentanyl in the drugs. Have you heard about this or know anyone who might be doing it? What are your thoughts or concerns about it?”
He then recommends that if a parent has a real concern that their child might be using illegal substances or struggling with the temptation to do so, the parent should try to create an opening to ask direct questions. They might say, “Have you or your friends ever thought about buying drugs from someone online?” And then reiterate that if they find themselves coming across this — in their own life or within their friend group — they are available to talk with them and provide support.
Immediate actions to take
“It’s about being in tune with your child and looking for opportunities to connect with them,” Dr. Bradshaw says. “Consider whether there are conversations that you should be having with your child now to further your connection and create an open line of communication, so that if something does come up someday, you have a better chance of trying to help them through.”
If parents believe their child is experiencing social-emotional challenges or might already be using illicit substances, Dr. Bradshaw recommends that parents seek treatment from a trained mental health professional. They can start with their teen’s primary care doctor to discuss any concerns and determine what type of treatment might be appropriate.
Learn about child and adolescent inpatient and outpatient programs, including substance use programs, at Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital.