How Do Teens Get Vapes (and Other Drugs) Online?

By this point, digital technology is seamlessly integrated into nearly every facet of our lives. This is just as true for teenagers and young adults. In fact, for many teens, the internet is where a large portion of their lives take place. The internet has revolutionized the way young individuals access information, connect with peers, and even procure various goods and services.

While this digital landscape offers unprecedented opportunities, it also can prove to be an impenetrable barrier, which many parents struggle to access. Smartphones, laptops, and the internet can be a shroud behind which many teenagers are able to hide the things they don’t want their parents to see. One concerning trend that has emerged is the online acquisition of e-cigarettes, vaping devices, other tobacco products, and even other, harder drugs by adolescents. The digital realm has given rise to new channels through which teens can access these substances, posing unique challenges to parents, educators, policymakers, and society at large.

As we navigate the digital alleyways and street corners that enable these transactions, the issue of teenagers purchasing vaping products online illustrates much larger, systemic problems. The nature of adolescent risk-taking behavior, the power and influence of cigarette companies, and the ubiquity of vape pens and electronic cigarettes illustrate the urgent need for comprehensive strategies that address this modern predicament.

Social Media

The largest and most obvious avenue of access to gratuitous sex, violence, and illicit substances for children is via social media. Parents tend to think that, because they use apps responsibly and encounter very little salacious material, their children will have the same experience across the apps. Unfortunately, this is untrue. As many apps turn to algorithm and discovery-based content, your child likely isn’t seeing a huge amount of content from other kids in their classes. More often than not, they’re encountering a barrage of content creators and marketers who are looking for your kid’s attention and spendable cash.

Snapchat Dealers

You’re likely familiar with Snapchat, a photo-sharing app where the sender gives the recipient up to 10 seconds to view the image sent. Chats in-app default to expiring after 24 hours, but could be saved for longer periods of time. Users can also share videos or photographs with their entire friend list on their stories, which expire after 24 hours.

Snapchat is largely unmoderated, meaning that there is no higher power for users to report when they come across unsafe personal content. You can report inappropriate images and accounts, but you cannot control who may reach out to your child. Snapchat also allows you to geotag your location without actively sharing it. When you consent to it on the app, it shares your location with your friend list and can be as accurate as pinpointing you within 200 feet of your location. It is possible to get banned on Snapchat, but there are many ways around even the most serious ban.

One of the more concerning features of the app is that it suggests people for you to add to your list of friends. Everyone is represented by a self-made cartoon or the company’s default ghost icon. This means that you can only assume who you’re adding based on their Snap names, which can also be obscured or completely made up. It’s extremely popular amongst kids to add every single person who comes across the suggested list to try and make new friends. You can also add and delete people from your list quickly.

These social media features can be beneficial for drug dealers or vape suppliers, who can market their product on expiring stories, add potential customers at random, arrange details for meetups or drop-offs, and quickly delete traces of communication. Kids love it because it leaves no evidence of their purchases and can slip past routine parent audits.

WhatsApp, Telegram, and Signal

WhatsApp, Telegram, and Signal offer their users the privacy of encryption. When your data is encrypted, unauthorized parties will not be able to read it even if they gain access to your information. Drug dealers use it to protect their transactions and traces of their communications. Seeing these apps on your children’s phones does not necessarily mean that they are buying illegal substances, but it could indicate that they are speaking to people outside of their direct social network.

On social media, the idea of ‘stranger danger’ becomes a blurred line, particularly for kids who spend a significant amount of time online. Online profiles are meant to curate an image, and the profiles of drug dealers and other people you’d rather not have your child involved with are no exception. They may post pictures and videos that look like fun, such as vape smoking challenges or wild parties, and host live streams meant to cultivate community and push sales. If your kid is watching this, they might want to join the club.

Emoji Code

Emoji code uses emojis associated with drugs to communicate what specific drugs you’re looking for or that you are a dealer with a certain type of product to sell. It relies on you not understanding all the possible slang associated with substances. When using emoji code, you are limited by the emojis offered, so you have to try to get your point across through slang or ideas related to the drugs. For example, there are no emojis of a marijuana leaf or any marijuana-related paraphernalia. However, the flame, trees, and wind puff emojis all communicate the idea of smoking weed. Other drug emojis are more obvious, such as mushrooms for psychedelic shrooms or diamonds for crystal meth. Dealers will use the plug emoji, as ‘plug’ is a slang term for dealer or money bags to communicate that they are selling. 

The Dark Web

The ‘dark web’ refers to an area of the internet intentionally hidden from casual users. Even the most chronically online people will likely never access the dark or deep web due to its hidden and difficult-to-access nature. The dark web creates a direct marketplace for drug dealers to access consumers and disappear without a trace. Users can find the URLs for these marketplaces via standard discussion boards such as Reddit or Discord.

Signs That Your Child May Be Buying Substances Online

While every kid may feel a sense of privacy or embarrassment over their parents looking through their devices, if your kid begins to have intense anxiety or outbursts around their phone, that could indicate something is going on. Your child might also be receiving mysterious packages or suddenly have excess cash to spend. You may catch them spending an abnormal amount of time online or excessively paranoid about others looking over their shoulder. 

How to Help

If you suspect that your child has been purchasing substances online, it may be time to have a serious talk. During this conversation, you should seek to understand the child’s desire to use substances and try to keep yourself from judging them or accusing them. While this can be indicative of a more serious matter, this time should be used for gathering information and assessing safety. A family therapist may be better able to bridge this gap in communication and help you and your child address any potential problems.

At New Life House, we help young men get sober and maintain their sobriety. Our sober living programs in Los Angeles offer peer support, supervised care, and medical detox services to start your journey. We provide a healthy and transformative environment to help you kick unhealthy habits, practice your independence, and develop the lifelong skills to live a clean and substance-free life. Call New Life House today to start your journey to recovery.

Last Updated on February 21, 2024


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