Instagram is in the news again, this time for reasons it would rather avoid. According to Tech Transparency Project, TTP, it is very easy for kids to find drugs on the platform, some of them potentially deadly.
TTP published this damning conclusion after carrying out multiple tests with different accounts. The accounts were for users between ages 13 and 17. The accounts got unfettered access to searching for hard drugs, and the algorithm even made it possible for the underage to connect directly with purveyors of opioids and party drugs.
Instagram and its parent company, Meta (formerly known as Facebook) have long faced criticism on its effect on young people’s mental health. The scrutiny has only increased following alarming revelations by whistleblower Frances Haugen. It came to light how the then-Facebook was aware that Instagram made some teenage girls have body image issues but took no action about it.
With a Senate hearing coming up for Instagram’s boss Adam Mosseri, TTP’s report into how kids get exposed to drugs on the photo-sharing platform couldn’t have come at a better time.
TTP’s conclusions are reproduced below:
- When a hypothetical teen user logged into the Instagram app, it only took two clicks to reach an account selling drugs like Xanax. In contrast, it took more than double the number of clicks—five—for the teen to log out of Instagram.
- Instagram bans some drug-related hashtags like #mdma (for the party drug ecstasy), but if the teen user searched for #mdma, Instagram auto-filled alternative hashtags for the same drug into the search bar.
- When a teen account followed a drug dealer on Instagram, the platform started recommending other accounts selling drugs, highlighting how the company’s algorithms try to keep young people engaged regardless of dangerous content.
- Drug dealers operate openly on Instagram, offering people of any age a variety of pills, including the opioid Oxycontin. Many of these dealers mention drugs directly in their account names to advertise their services.
- Despite Instagram’s pledge to make all under-16 accounts private by default, TTP found that was only true of accounts created through the mobile app; under-16 accounts created through the Instagram website were public by default.
This is not the first time drugs on Instagram have come to focus. Back in 2018, a Facebook VP, Carolyn Everson, responded to inquiries on what the platform was doing about its takeover by drug dealers by saying Instagram couldn’t distinguish posts of people selling banned drugs and of those that are only consuming them. She admitted, though, that drug dealing was a violation of Instagram’s terms and conditions.
Years down the line, it seems Instagram has not improved in its effort to combat drug dealing. The failure is even more pronounced when it comes to kids, according to PPT.
Here is another excerpt from the report that shows how serious the drug problems for kids are, as even autocomplete brings up drug-related phrases:
“For example, when one of our teen users started typing the phrase “buyxanax” into Instagram’s search bar, the platform started auto-filling results for buying Xanax before the user was even finished typing. When the minor clicked on one of the suggested accounts, they instantly got a direct line to a Xanax dealer. The entire process took seconds and involved just two clicks. The pattern repeated with “buyfentanyl.” (Pills laced with fentanyl are a rising factor in drug overdose deaths for teens and adults in many parts of the country.)”
More alarmingly, drug dealers could reach TTP’s minor account through unsolicited phone calls to advertise their wares, although that was after the teen account followed the drug dealers’ accounts. What is worse Instagram suggested the drug dealer account for a follow.
In another case, after another TTP teen account followed a drug dealer’s account, it got a direct message detailing drugs, their prices, and shipping options even before the teen account initiated a discussion.
Instagram periodically banns drug-related hashtags, but it was easy for TTP to search for hashtags containing the banned drugs and their slang terms. The platform ends up suggesting the compromised hashtags to the teen accounts.
TTP made complaints about 50 posts that showed unmistakable signs of drug dealing, but Instagram replied, after review, that more than 70 percent of the posts did not violate its policies.
With these new findings, Mosseri can expect more grilling during his appearance in the Senate. We hope Instagram will can come up with adequate measures against all these social menaces rocking its platform.