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Instagram’s hidden drug market for teens is out of control

“My friend got addicted to Xanax after a diagnosis of clinical depression, and he now scores his fix on Instagram,” says Gursaakhi Miglani, a student pursuing a master’s degree in Clinical Psychiatry from India’s Chandigarh University. She is not the only one to tell a story that links the social fabric of Instagram with a familiar tragedy of drug abuse. Two students from prestigious institutions, both under the age of 20, told me on conditions of anonymity that Instagram is the safest way to buy “party goods.” A fellow journalist confirmed that Instagram’s drugs marketplace is buzzing, but asked me not to report all such accounts because that’s where she sources her “pot brownies” from.

And it is quite worrying to see that teens appear to be a recurring theme in this dark equation. Instagram is not the healthiest social media platform, especially for teens. Even its own internal research that was recently leaked made it clear that the platform worsened mental health problems for some young users. But it also has a dark drug underbelly that is not even sparing minor users. The Tech Transparency Project (TPP) revealed some startling facts about the bustling online drug marketplace on Instagram just over a month ago. The investigation makes it abundantly clear that even with the teen-protection tools touted by Instagram, there is hardly any meaningful barrier that can protect young minds from the drug business.

The nonprofit created test accounts belonging to users between the ages of 13 and 17. Now, this is the group whose profiles are set to private by default, and Instagram blocks direct messages (DMs) from strangers to protect them. However, the research proved how utterly ineffective these measures are. Despite having accounts under the sensitive “minor” class of users, finding drugs is extremely easy for them. In fact, Instagram’s own systems appear to be lending a hand here. TPP’s research says it only takes a couple of clicks to find an account peddling drugs on Instagram. In contrast, the process of logging out takes five clicks.

Enough with these underwhelming baby steps & vague “directional” alignments. What we need now is broad, bold solutions & accountability that address transparency, children’s privacy, & create effective tools for parents & kids to protect themselves on these platforms.

— Richard Blumenthal (@SenBlumenthal) December 9, 2021

Problematic drugs hashtags like #mdma are banned, but Instagram autofills alternatives such as #mollymdma and even suggests accounts peddling stuff like Xanax, Fentanyl, and Adderall. The hashtag flaw was also highlighted in 2018 by The Washington Post. Miglani tells me that gaming hashtags are one of the most common workarounds for quickly finding a drug dealer on the photo-sharing platform. As per TPP’s report, Instagram’s algorithms started suggesting accounts selling illegal drugs as soon as the test account belonging to a teenager followed a drug peddler. Some of the bad actors do it all so brazenly that they mention the name of drugs directly on their profile page. And as soon as a test account followed a shady drug seller’s account, unsolicited calls followed.

I’ve personally never experienced any cannabis derivatives, but it took me less than five minutes to find accounts selling weed using nothing but generic words in the app’s search field. Here are screenshots of what a seller’s account looks like, and a potential sale conversation I initiated as a test:

Accounts peddling cannabis products in India.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

And further exacerbating the problem is a huge loophole. Instagram says it sets the accounts of users younger than 16 to private by default. TPP found that it only applies to accounts made using the mobile app, and not the desktop client. Even Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri confirmed it earlier this week when he testified before Congress. Allowing a busy drugs marketplace to thrive is a serious issue, especially when it ensnares teens and puts their lives at risk. But that’s just one aspect of a problem that is intrinsically linked to another major issue that Instagram users grapple with — social acceptance, and the mental health pressure that comes with it.

A billion users, a few fundamental flaws

To understand the problem, I reached out to Mohammad Talha Shamim, who holds a degree in psychiatry from the All India Institute of Medical Science, a group of eminent autonomous government-public medical colleges and hospitals that is considered to be the best in India. He opined that Instagram is making it easier for teens to get addicted. And that primarily has to do with its vast reach, especially among young users. The app currently has over a billion users and continues to add millions every quarter. Instagram was the third-most downloaded mobile app in 2021 (No. 4 on the App Store and No. 2 on the Google Play Store), per Sensor Tower. Shah, who was startled at TPP’s findings, noted that Instagram’s role as a facilitator should be brought under tight oversight before more damage is done to its most vulnerable user base.

instagram and its drugs problem
Image used with permission by copyright holder

VentureBeat’s own investigations correlated Instagram and its inherent drugs problem twice going back 2014. The Guardian reported Instagram’s role in drug peddling in 2016. A 2019 study published in the International Journal of Drug Policy highlighted how platforms like Instagram act as a quick, convenient, and secure method for buying illicit drugs. VICE documented Instagram’s drugs problem twice back in 2019 and 2020. American Addiction Centers’ research also exposed a booming business of illicit codeine, MDMA, marijuana, painkillers, and cocaine sales on Instagram.

TPP’s research says it only takes a couple of clicks to find an account peddling drugs on Instagram.

Explaining why teen users gravitate toward drugs in the first place, Talha pointed at “curiosity of the young mind” as one of the reasons. This enthusiasm takes a horrendous turn without effective warning around how addiction destroys lives and proper education about the consumption of drugs, for both recreational and medicinal purposes. Another culprit is social pressure, and this plays a key role in embracing injurious consumption patterns. For example, a 2020 study published in the International Journal of Medical Informatics found that Instagram is widely used to promote vaping among young users.

Teens often struggle with social acceptance among the “cool people of Instagram with happening lives.” A 2016 study published in the Computers in Human Behavior journal divulged this aspect of Instagram usage in detail. Fear of missing out further pushes users toward addictive usage. A 2020 study published in Psychological Reports linked this fear to addictive usage.

Reeling under the stress of finding a place among their more popular contacts on Instagram, teens have their first experience of using drugs for recreational purposes. A University of Copenhagen study published in 2019 in the Drug And Alcohol Review journal of the Australasian Professional Society on Alcohol and other Drugs (APSAD) highlighted how easy it was to drift in and out of selling and using drugs in Nordic countries with the advent of platforms such as Instagram. And compared to alcohol addiction, drug abuse is far worse. The impact on physical and mental health is taxing, and withdrawal is a lot more severe and prolonged.

More problems than just drugs

Image illustrating Instagram's issues with drugs.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

It is also at this stage that the bigger problem manifests — anxiety, depression, and peer pressure. The unrealistic body standards, measures of prosperity, and scales of material happiness occupying all corners of Instagram force teens to undermine what they already have. And to cope with that pressure, young users often turn to drugs to alleviate their pain and forget whatever mental trauma they are carrying.

“Drugs help dissociate the feeling of inferiority complex by making users forget the trauma they have been subjected to,” Rehan Abdi, a doctor of psychiatry at the Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College in Aligarh, India, says, explaining that psycho-social forces play a pivotal role in pushing teens toward drug abuse.

“Not everyone becomes an addict after using drugs for the first time,” Talha says. “But when you have a billion existing users, and hundreds of millions ready to onboard, even a tiny fraction of new addicts is a worryingly high number.” There is also a class of users who come to Instagram seeking solace from the pain in their real lives. But at some point, psychological conflicts arise, and coping strategies shift from visual engagement to drug-infused euphoria.

Instagram is no stranger to these mental health problems. A 2017 study by the U.K.’s Royal Society for Public Health ranked Instagram as the worst platform for the mental health of young users. The U.K.’s leading child protection charity, the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC), found that Instagram was the most widely used platform by sex offenders for grooming children in 2020 and 2021. The 2017 Annual Bullying Survey by Ditch the Label found Instagram to be the platform on which the highest share of young users experienced cyberbullying. There are many such papers out there exposing the ills of Instagram, and they connect the problematic dots in a very uncomplicated fashion.

A moderation problem as much as a drug problem

Yes, Instagram has a serious drugs problem. And in countries like India, where it barely spends resources on moderation and content vigilance compared to what it does in the U.S., the problem exacerbates beyond control. “It’s a whole universe of bad actors willing to convert young users into addicts. And I’m afraid that without proper regulation and accountability, we can’t save the new generation,” Miglani says.

Despite all these unsolved existing problems, the company wanted to make an “Instagram For Kids.” It wouldn’t have fared well, and thanks to mounting pressure, Instagram put the project on ice. But Instagram needs to do a lot more than just scrapping bad ideas. It needs to act proactively and do it responsibly before it’s too late.

Digital Trends has reached out to representatives at Instagram and Meta for a response, and we will update this story when we hear back.

Nadeem Sarwar
Nadeem is a tech journalist who started reading about cool smartphone tech out of curiosity and soon started writing…
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