Snapchat’s parent company announced Tuesday that it was taking more steps to curb drug dealing on the app, including making it harder for users to find the accounts of minors under age 17. It is making the change as drug overdoses are spiking across the U.S., partly because of the proliferation of the potent opioid fentanyl.
An NBC News investigation published in October found that Snapchat was linked to the sale of fentanyl-laced pills that killed teenagers and young adults in over a dozen states. Following the reporting, Snap, the service’s parent company, said it improved its automated systems to detect illegal drugs, hired more employees to handle law enforcement requests and developed an education portal focused on the dangers of fentanyl and counterfeit pills.
Now, the company said, it is taking its efforts even further. Snap said in a blog post that to “protect 13 to 17 year olds,” it changed its friend recommendation feature, called Quick Add. It will no longer suggest that users add accounts belonging to minors unless they have “a certain number of friends in common with that person.” The tweak will, in effect, make it more difficult for strangers to become friends on Snapchat with teenagers they don’t know.
“Snapchat isn’t ideal for finding new people,” Jacqueline Beauchere, Snap’s global head of platform safety, said in an interview. “It was designed for communicating with people whom you already know, your real-life friends.”
Samuel Chapman, the father of a 16-year-old boy who overdosed last year after he took fentanyl-laced pills bought on Snapchat, said the change won’t do much to stop drug dealing on the app. “All of these things are easy for drug dealers and for kids to get around,” he said.
“What I find with Snap Inc. is that they publicize one Band-Aid after another, but at the end of the day, you can still go online and get drugs in seconds,” he said.
Chapman said he wants Snap and other social media companies to work together on a solution that would combat drug activity across different platforms. In October, Snap said it was working with the public health data firm S-3 to scan the internet for drug dealers who may be promoting their Snapchat accounts on other websites.
Snap also said Tuesday that it was partnering with two nonprofit organizations that will provide resources to Snapchat users in the app, Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America and the Truth Initiative, a group focused on preventing young people from using nicotine. The nonprofit groups will provide educational content about the harms of drugs on Heads Up, Snapchat’s in-app education portal. It already includes information from advocacy groups like Song for Charlie, a nonprofit started by the parents of a 22-year-old who died after he took a fentanyl pill in 2020.
“We’re sounding an alarm bell. Parents and young people need to understand the dire reality spreading across online platforms, including Snapchat. These lethal counterfeit drugs, masquerading as prescription medications, they’re out there, and they’re available,” Beauchere said.
Snap said in the blog post that it now proactively detects 88 percent of the drug-related content it finds on Snapchat, while the rest is reported by users. The company says that when it detects drug dealing activity, it bans the users who shared it and uses technology to prevent them creating other accounts. In some cases, it refers the banned accounts to law enforcement agencies for investigation.
Snap also announced that it had expanded its law enforcement operations team by 74 percent. But it didn’t specify the number of employees it had hired. Some parents of children who overdosed on fentanyl pills bought on Snapchat have criticized the company for being slow to respond to law enforcement inquiries. Snap said Tuesday that it had improved its response times by 85 percent over the last year, from months to a few weeks on average.
“Our goal of ridding Snapchat of drug dealers and drug content isn’t going to be achieved overnight. Meaningful progress takes time,” Beauchere said. “We realize that our work may never be done.”
This article was previously published on NBCNews.com.