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Instagram pushes drug content to teens

A research group alleges that the company does so despite promises to crack down.

Instagram is pushing drug-related content to teen accounts, according to research by the watchdog group Tech Transparency Project (TTP). While the company has pledged to crack down on drug sales, it continues to suggest hashtags related to buying illegal substances to children as young as 13, the research shows. 

As part of its investigation into the experience of minors on the platform, TTP created seven different fake teen accounts. It found that the company’s algorithms helped the hypothetical minors ages 13 to 17 connect with drug dealers claiming to sell MDMA and fentanyl. 

The news comes as Adam Mosseri, the head of Instagram, prepares to testify Wednesday before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. He is likely to be asked by members of Congress to speak to the potentially negative impact that Instagram has on children. 

“I would encourage Congress to ask him if he allows children to use Instagram and if he monitors their activity,” said Katie Paul, TTP’s director. “It takes 20 seconds to connect with a purported drug trafficker. The accounts are telling you they are children. That’s the most shocking thing. The platform’s business model clearly relies on being able to access younger users. If they are unable to do that without pushing kids to these risks, that requires a much deeper investigation from lawmakers.”

On Tuesday, Instagram announced a series of changes related to keeping teenagers safe on the app. These included parental controls that will allow parents to limit the amount of time their kids spend on the app, options to stop people from tagging people under the age of 16 if those people do not follow them, and a feature called "take a break" that will encourage users to get off the app more frequently.

TTP defines drug dealers as accounts offering nonmedical and pharmaceutical drugs for sale. The organization did not buy drugs as part of its investigation, meaning some of the dealer accounts it identified might be scams. 

When one of the teen accounts logged into Instagram, it took only two taps to reach an account claiming to sell Xanax or fentanyl. In contrast, it takes five taps to log out of the Instagram app.

“They make it hard to log out, but easy to find drugs,” Paul said. 

TTP reported 50 posts from supposed drug dealer accounts. Instagram found that 72 percent did not violate the company’s community guidelines, according to the researchers. This included a “buy xanax” account that called one of TTP’s fake 15-year-old accounts twice via Instagram messenger. Instagram said it removed 12 of the posts along with an entire account that violated its company policies, TTP noted. However, when the researchers checked, the account that was supposed to have been removed was still operational. NBC independently corroborated this finding. 

Stephanie Otway, a spokesperson for Meta, Instagram's parent company, said in a statement about the findings that “we prohibit drug sales on Instagram. We removed 1.8 million pieces of content related to drug sales in the last quarter alone, and due to our improving detection technology, the prevalence of such content is about 0.05 percent of content viewed, or about 5 views per every 10,000. We’ll continue to improve in this area in our ongoing efforts to keep Instagram safe, particularly for our youngest community members.”  

Younger markets

Since 2012, Instagram has been struggling to attract younger users. The company’s own research has found that the number of teen Facebook users has dropped significantly since 2019, and is expected to continue to decline over the next two years. Even Instagram, which remains popular among younger demographics, is showing less engagement from teenagers. 

In 2018, Instagram began dedicating nearly its entire marketing budget, estimated to be roughly $390 million in 2021, to targeting teens, according to The New York Times. The company was particularly focused on 13- to 15-year-olds. It later started to develop an Instagram Kids app specifically for those 13 and younger, but paused the efforts amid pushback from regulators and child safety advocates. 

The platform’s impact on teenagers came under fire in September when The Wall Street Journal published internal research suggesting Instagram makes body image issues worse for some teenage girls. The research came from a trove of documents provided by Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen.

Earlier this year, Instagram announced that it would make profiles private by default for users under the age of 16. But TTP found that the policy only held true for profiles created through the Instagram app. When TPP created an account for a 15-year-old through the Instagram website, the account was public by default. 

Drug autofill

While Instagram bans hashtags such as #fentanyl, #oxycontin and #mdma, when a TTP teen account searched for #mdma, Instagram autofilled hashtags related to the drug in the search bar. The same was true when a teen account searched for “buyxanax” and “buyfentanyl.” If a teen account clicked on one of the suggested accounts, it “instantly got a direct line to a xanax [or fentanyl] dealer,” according to the TTP report. 

In the statement, Otway said the company is reviewing additional hashtags to see if they violate the company’s policies.  

The drug pipeline became more clear when a teen account followed a purported drug dealer. In that case, Instagram recommended other accounts claiming to sell drugs. Oftentimes, the dealers mentioned specific drugs in their usernames, making it clear the types of substances they were offering. 

One of the “buy xanax” accounts TTP followed sent a direct message to the fake teen within 24 hours asking what they would like to buy. “They shouldn’t be able to contact teens,” Paul said. 

The process is particularly worrying with fentanyl, which has contributed to a  deadly spike in drug overdoses in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Santa Clara County, California, near Facebook’s headquarters, 73 people died from fentanyl overdoses in 2020, including a 12-year-old girl.

“I would say Instagram is one of the worst places for exposure to this kind of content,” said Tim Mackey, a professor at the University of California, San Diego, and founder of S-3, a company that tracks illegal drug sales online. He noted that drug dealers use Instagram to share out their contact information, even if they push people to other platforms to complete subsequent parts of the drug trade. 

Efforts at change

In 2018, Instagram began showing users a pop-up if they searched for hashtags like “opioid.” It read: “If you or someone you know is struggling with opioid or substance misuse, find ways to get free and confidential treatment referrals, as well as information about substance abuse, prevention, and recovery.” The company acknowledged that it was being used by people who wanted to buy drugs, as well as those struggling with substance abuse issues. 

“Platforms often say if we police this content, we remove some of the good content,” Mackey said. “But I think that the classification to distinguish between drug dealing and content about addiction behaviors is easy to do.”