Drug Free Kids Canada is an organization that educates parents on how to talk to their kids about drugs. Its research shows the average age of experimentation with alcohol is 13 while cannabis is 14.
Executive director Chantal Vallerand says one of the social media trends the group has observed is the vaping challenge, which spread widely on platforms such as TikTok. But its focus when it comes to pills is on parents’ medicine cabinets, as their focus groups indicate that 55 percent of children who used a prescription drug said they got it at home.
“When it comes to pills, when we do focus group with kids,” Vallerand says, “kids will say, well, it’s safe because in their mind a pharmaceutical company made it.”
She says she does not want to downplay the danger of fentanyl-laced pills being sold on social media, but they haven’t had parents contacting them with that specific concern.
Shabbir Safdar is the executive director of the U.S.-based Partnership for Safe Medicines, an organization that keeps a spreadsheet listing deaths connected to fake pills purchased through Snapchat. It has linked 17 confirmed deaths to the application in 12 states.
He says law enforcement in the U.S. has expressed deep concerns about the issue, and he expects it will become a bigger topic of conversation in Canada as more people die. Last year, nearly 108,000 Americans died of opioid overdoses.
“This is the problem that’s coming your way — you’re about to get hit like you’re on vacation in a tsunami zone,” he says. “It’s gonna be bad.”
He says while law enforcement seems to be taking the issue more seriously, he’s more skeptical about the social media companies themselves.
“The companies say that they’re working on it, but social media companies are trying to get a handle on every kind of crime that happens on their platform,” Safdar says. “And for some reason, they’re not doing a very good job on this one.”
He says they seem to take terrorism content or child sexual abuse material more seriously, citing an example of a Facebook group his organization reported that was advertising drugs for sale.
“Facebook said that it did not violate community guidelines, despite the fact that there’s video of customers opening up the packages that they’ve received to prove that they actually got the products,” Safdar says, noting the page went through both human and automated review.
“We reported it over and over again,” he adds. “That stuff’s still online.”
One thing the companies have done is make it harder to search for terms like fentanyl or Xanax. But that can be counterproductive because it prevents organizations and the public from reporting it, Safdar says.
And savvy drug dealers will just use lingo that young people are hip to, like “Xanny bars” instead of Xanax, he says.
Since she lost her son, Neville has dedicated her life to raising awareness about deadly drugs being sold on social media. She started a foundation in her son’s name and has organized protests at Snapchat’s headquarters in Santa Monica calling for change — she was there just last month.
Neville will remember Alexander for his bright curiosity — it was the filament that lit up his mind and sparked his imagination, inspiring a deep passion for history, skating, Lego and Pokemon cards.
It was also what got him interested in drugs. Alexander, who was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder, started smoking cannabis in 2019 and said it helped calm his mind and feel more in control of himself.
It caused friction in the family, and Neville says it was a constant “tug of war” to try to get him to stop.
Alexander had changed by Christmas break of 2019. He was moodier and less engaged with the family. They enrolled him in a mood and anxiety program that treated mild substance use, which seemed to have a positive effect.
But then the pandemic hit, and he couldn’t participate in much of the programming. Because Alexander had asthma, the family closely followed COVID restrictions. Alexander ended up spending a lot more time at home — and online.
It was June 2020 when the family started noticing major changes. Alexander was having intense mood swings, sleeping at odd times and had thrown up a couple times. One day in June, Alexander sat his parents down and said he needed to talk.
“He said I got some Oxy through a drug dealer on Snapchat. And it has a hold on me. And I don’t understand why,” Neville recalls.
“He said ‘I thought this would be fun. And it’s not.’ ”
That was on a Sunday night in June. The next day, they took steps to register Alexander for a treatment program. But that same night, he would take the pill that ended his life sometime after 9 p.m.
His mother found him on Tuesday morning.
“We were very confused,” Neville says. “Like, how could he have taken so much Oxy? How does this make sense after our conversation? Because this kid does not want to die.”
In fact, the pill was not OxyContin. Officials from the Orange County sheriff’s office said it had enough fentanyl to kill three or four people.
Neville is haunted by the days that followed after Alexander’s confession, where she says they didn’t realize the gravity of the situation.
“We thought we were still dealing with the old narrative of someone stole Grandma’s prescription and is selling it to friends. And that’s just not the case.”
Neville said she was aware of the illicit pill trade but fentanyl was not on her radar, nor was it being talked about.
“We were the parents that watched all the drug prevention programs at school … We were doing everything we were supposed to do,” Neville says.
“I tried to step up, to help him. I feel like that not having all the information is why Alex died. There’s a lot of factors here, but had we known about fentanyl, our reaction on that Sunday night would have been very different.”
While she says there are things she could have done differently for Alexander, her focus now is helping other parents navigate the world of social media and drugs.
She wants to see the social media companies make more of a concerted effort to police the platforms and wants to see Snapchat’s data, which it says has shown less drug activity due to its enforcement, audited by a third party.
She believes there are simple things they can do right now to make the platforms safer for minors, for example, stopping advertising to children.
“Kids don’t need an algorithm. You don’t need to know the kids’ information and history on there. Turn it off. Don’t advertise to kids, bottom line.”
Neville would also like to see the pervasive plug emoji removed from the platforms.
“Everybody knows the plug emoji is the hookup. Why is that plug emoji still so readily available? What is it needed for? Take it away.”
She’s not confident the companies are sincere in their commitment to make the platforms safer, because she believes it would affect their bottom line. So she’s also pushing for legislative change, which would force the companies’ hand.
She hopes she can help other parents avoid what her family has gone through.
“Maybe you have to temporarily suspend things until you fix it. I don’t know,” Neville says.
“Because as long as we’re still losing lives, how is this worth it?”