You know your teen spends hours online. But instead of mere idle gossip and song-swapping, it's possible he or she is seeking information about ecstasy, heroin or DXM, a drug found in over-the-counter cough medicine, according to a new study by Nielsen BuzzMetrics.
Using search software much like Google, the study's researchers sifted through 10.3 million messages posted between April 1, 2006, and March 31, 2007, on public sites such as Myspace.com and Teenspot.com. The researchers, commissioned by a non-profit provider of drug and alcohol treatment services in the United States, found that 160,000 messages, or 1.6 per cent of the total, focused on drugs and alcohol. The top choices? Alcohol, marijuana, cocaine and LSD (acid).
Alcohol and marijuana were the most popular topics of discussion. Outside of those, about 11 per cent of drug and alcohol-related online chats involved teens seeking advice from peers on how to take illicit drugs "safely" and without getting caught.
Teens have always swapped this kind of information behind their parents' backs. But now, with the networking potential of the Internet, the pool of potential peers is vast - and so is the library of information.
"Five years ago, we weren't looking at this at all," says Janice Styer, an addiction counsellor for Caron Treatment Centers, the organization that sponsored the study.
Indeed, entire sites now exist to serve those curious about drugs. One resource site, Erowid.com, has compiled one of the world's most exhaustive and accurate collections of information on recreational drugs and their use, according to a piece in this month's Harper's Magazine.
And teens can organize into online groups based on drinking and drug use. Teens logging on to networking sites such as Nexopia.com can list among their interests clubbing, raving, partying and drinking.
The dissemination of faulty, even dangerous information worries Ms. Styer most. "We have kids assuming the role of doctor," says the counsellor, who works at a Caron centre in New York.
She has seen posts suggesting mixing Tylenol with heroin. Because of this kind of advice, "kids are ending up in emergency rooms having seizures on drugs."
But the thrill of clandestine topics of discussion is powerful. "They love that parents aren't cool enough to be in on it," Ms. Styer says. "It's their own private world. And it's a dark world."
The Nielsen BuzzMetrics study found beer and vodka were the most popular topics when teens discussed alcohol, while recreational drugs other than marijuana - including ecstasy, DXM and mushrooms - provided the most fodder for questions. Teens want to know about the drugs' effects, how they would feel if they were high and recommended dosage levels.
Commonly asked questions included:
How long does it take for various drugs to clear the system in order to pass a drug test?
Is there a way to modify ecstasy to be legal?
What is the metal tray on hookahs used for?
Some teens also posed questions comparing the effects of various drugs and the risks of harder drugs compared with those of cigarettes and alcohol.
While the study's authors say the research can't be extrapolated to apply to all teens, they say it does provide valuable insight into exactly how young people talk about drugs and alcohol.
"What we found was not a snapshot of all teens," Nielsen BuzzMetrics vice-president Max Kalehoff says. "It was a window into a self-selecting group of individuals."
So, if you're a parent and you're not savvy about the Internet, get savvy, Ms. Styer says. She suggests learning the lingo, looking into filters and safeguards and not allowing a computer in your teen's bedroom.
And with Internet use approaching 100 per cent among Canadian students, this is an issue that experts predict will continue to grow. Ninety-four per cent of students reported they have access to the Internet at home in 2005, up from 79 per cent in 2001, according to a study of 5,000 students in Grade 4 to 11 completed for the Ottawa-based educational non-profit organization Media Awareness Network.
Teen drug lingo
A high achieved by combining LSD (acid) with MDMA (ecstasy).
"Let's go candy flipping tonight."
To get high and drunk at the same time.
"We've got beer and weed. Let's get crunked."
Dextromorphan hydrobromide (DXM HBr) - a drug in over-the-counter cough suppressants. More than 900 milligrams creates a hallucinogenic effect.
"I'm out of weed, let's trip on DXM."
To drink before going to a party.
"We should pregame before we go out tonight."
Salvia divinorum - a plant native to Southern Mexico. It has a hallucinogenic effect.
"Salvia highs make you see some scary stuff."
Coricidin HBP Cough & Cold. Taking more than the recommended dose of the cough medicine can have a hallucinogenic effect. Syn: skittles, robo trip, poor man's X.
"I'm out of X but I've got Triple Cs. I'm going to robo trip."
Source: Nielsen BuzzMetrics
Of all online discussions in teen communities studied by Nielson BuzzMetrics, 1.6 per cent were about drugs and alcohol. A breakdown of which drugs teens discussed:
Special K: 0.9%
SOURCE: NIELSEN BUZZMETRICS