Dec. 9, 2008 at 8:00 AM ET
The questions are unsettling.
"What are some household items that you can get high off of?" "What household seasonings can you smoke to get high?" "How to make a household bomb?"
But many parents of young teens will find the answers downright disturbing.
"YES...If you take the right size dose, about 2 tablespoons," reads one. "It starts very slow, but after a while you feel warm, kinda jittery/wired, also kinda disoriented and a mild high. I like it. But, the effects last for about 24 hours, and you will probably continue to feel a little "funny" for another couple days. If you have a weekend alone, it's worth trying. The price is right, so why not?"
The appearance of dangerous information on the Web is hardly new, and teens have always swapped tips about getting high. But the appearance of such unsavory recipes on sites like Yahoo Answers raises fresh questions about what's appropriate on a mainstream Web site.
Question and answer sites have quietly become a successful category on the Web. Since their inception about two years ago, traffic as grown steadily: Yahoo's Answer site attracts more than 34 million U.S. visitors each month, according to ComScore/Media Metrix. Wiki Answers, the nearest competitor, gets about half that.
The sites have a simple formula: a curious user poses a simple, short question, like "How can I buy a GPS with free traffic reports," and the community of users attempts to answer it.
Not all the questions are so innocent, however. On Yahoo! Answers there are dozens of questions from kids looking for recipes to get high. Answers are easy to come by.
For example, there are detailed instructions on various forms of “huffing,” a way of concentrating the power of typical inhalants that can be found in household products.
Inhalant use is a serious problem among younger teenagers. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the federal agency that monitors drug use, about 1 in 20 13-year-old kids has tried inhalants in the past year -- by far the most common illicit drug used by that age group. Inhalant use, which is highly dangerous and can kill with a single use, tends to taper off as kids hit 16. By then, they have easier access to other drugs, according to Dr. H. Westley Clark, director of the federal Center for Substance Abuse Treatment.
Yahoo officials refused repeated requests for an interview in connection with this story and provided only an e-mail statement.
"Yahoo! Answers strives to make the community a safe and enriching place by encouraging our members to conduct themselves with a high degree of integrity, decency and respect," it said. "Yahoo! Answers also deploys a customer care team to address, identify and remove inappropriate content, and on a daily basis, thousands of entries are flagged and nearly half of them are fully deleted after careful review."
A review of Yahoo's site reveals that some questions are indeed off-limits. Many requests for information on illegal activity -- "How do I steal credit card numbers?" for example -- unearth only warnings from other users that such behavior is illegal.
In some cases, questions about illicit drug use have been removed from the site. Yahoo also deletes user accounts that engage in some drug-related dialog. One month ago, in an answer to the question "What household items can get you high," a user with the screen name Rum Stem replied, "I know lots of ways but last time I answered this question my account was deleted."
Still, there are hundreds of drug recipes available on Yahoo! Answers. And many have been on the site for more than one year.
At WikiAnswers, owned by New York-based Answers Corp., questionable content is handled differently.
There, a set of 500 volunteers create a list of "Catch All" questions which aren't allowed on the site. When a user asks such a question, a generic reply developed by the company is shown. The question "How do I build a bomb?" elicits the response: "WikiAnswers does not provide information that will aid or support criminal activity."
The question "How do I get high from household items” redirects the asker to the question "What household items can kill you?"
The site also publishes its list of forbidden questions.
Bruce Smith, chief strategy officer at Answers.com, says the firm is constantly adding to the list.
"There is no hard and fast rule. We have a lot of debates," he said. Certain questions, however, are unambiguous, he said.
In addition to the volunteer supervisors, individual users can also flag material as inappropriate, an option that also is available to Yahoo users.
"Nothing is perfect. But the bigger the community, the more effective the monitoring," Smith said.
Clark, who studies child drug abuse for the government, was hesitant to criticize Yahoo's more liberal policy regarding publication of drug recipes. He said that the information is widely accessible online, so suppressing it does little good. Clark also pointed out that many of the replies on Yahoo Answers warned questioners not to try drugs.
"The discussion isn't as pro drug as it might appear," Clark said, noting that some former users testify to the terrible side effects, for example. "Much of the debate is well-placed.”
The site also provides information to family members who are looking for more information on indicators of drug abuse among children he said, pointing to a number of questions posed by writers identifying themselves as concerned parents.
Some “concerned parents,” however, appear to be curious teens faking their identities in a quest for elusive information.
Still, Clark says the information cat-and-mouse game is unavoidable. Every drug education program finds itself in a similar dilemma -- at risk of providing too much information to kids who might otherwise not know about illicit drugs. But he said he generally believes agencies and educators should "err on the side of allowing the message to be clarified," rather than stifling dialogue.