September 9, 2021
Emojis could be a clue to drug activity by teens

A story of heartbreak from earlier this year is a scary reminder for parents of how easily children can use social media to buy and sell drugs — and how hard it can be to protect them. Dr. Laura Berman, a relationship therapist with a television show on the Oprah Winfrey Network, told followers in a February Instagram post that her 16-year-old son, Sammy, had died of an overdose in his bedroom after ingesting counterfeit “Xanax” laced with fentanyl. He had bought the drug via Snapchat from a dealer who delivered it to the house like a pizza.

In the wake of the tragedy, Berman has taken to TV and social media, warning parents of the secret code teens are using to talk about illegal drugs. The “code,” as any parent could guess, is emojis — the cartoonish faces, hand signs, and other images built into every social media platform and most email programs.

Some symbols are intuitive and consistently used; others vary. An electric plug, for example, means “dealer” — someone who can “hook you up.” A capsule-type pill denotes heroin; a snowflake represents cocaine. The little car is a request for or promise of home delivery. Just about any leaf or tree image can mean marijuana.

Parents who are worried their children might be involved in dangerous substance use should look for emoji-coded messages on their kids’ phones, Berman said.

Sgt. Michael Weaver, a detective in the Grove City Police Department’s special-operations bureau, agrees. “The biggest way to overcome this is having transparency with their kids and cell phones,” he said. “Most parents rarely check (their kids’ phones). I think it would solve a lot of issues and help parents detect this kind of problem early.”

A recent case in which Weaver was involved provided a textbook example for local police. Two teens, operating out of a backyard shed, were using Snapchat to arrange sales of THC cartridges for vape pens. Buyers prepaid via Venmo or Cash App, making the handoff quick and efficient: A car would pull up, a teen would bicycle out to the street with the merchandise and the buyer would leave.

A neighbor, suspicious of the frequent traffic, alerted police. A warranted search of the teens’ cell phones revealed details of the scheme, including the broad extent of their customer base and buying patterns. “You could see their business pick up as soon as (the local high school) got out,” Weaver said.

Many parents aren’t sure how to go about monitoring their kids’ social media use or even talking with them about substance use. They’re uncomfortable with the idea of confrontation or afraid they’ll alienate their children.

Hilliard Police Officer Sam DiSaia, who serves as the resource office for Hilliard Davidson High School, advises parents to get over that fear as soon as they can. “Don’t be afraid to say at age 16, ‘We need to take a look at your phone,’ ” he said. “It gets harder as they get older.” If parents see something they don’t understand, DiSaia said, they should ask questions.

The best approach can vary by circumstance. Dr. Erin Mcknight, a pediatrician who provides medication-assisted drug treatment at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, cautions against being overly confrontational or spying — surreptitiously checking phones or bedrooms. Both can damage the lines of communication that she believes are the best tool for preventing substance use.

“I start by talking about keeping an open dialog about substance abuse,” Mcknight said. “Studies show just talking to kids about it decreases the risk (of use) by about 50%.” For parents who think there is reason to worry, Mcknight said, “Say ‘I’m concerned about this.’ It has to be an open conversation.”

en English