Kids involved on both sides of social media drug deals don't fit the stereotypes parents may carry, psychologist John Duffy says.

Editor’s Note: Psychologist John Duffy, author of “Parenting the New Teen in the Age of Anxiety,” practices in Chicago. He specializes in working with teens, parents, couples and families.

CNN  — 

While the drug dealers on the street enticing kids to take a hit haven’t disappeared, my teenage clients tell me that social media is increasingly an almost invisible way that dealers are reaching young people.

This phenomenon can lead to tragic consequences. Some kids are overdosing on these drugs, occasionally laced with potentially lethal substances. This was the case in the devastating death of relationship therapist and TV host Laura Berman’s son, who allegedly bought fentanyl-laced Xanax on Snapchat.

Snapchat spokeswoman Rachel Racusen said in an emailed statement to CNN that the company’s deepest sympathies were with the family following the tragedy in February.

“We are committed to working together with law enforcement in this case and in all instances where Snapchat is used for illegal purposes. We have zero tolerance for using Snapchat to buy or sell illegal drugs,” Racusen said.

Using Snapchat for illegal purposes is against the company’s community guidelines and “we enforce against these violations,” she added.

“We are constantly improving our technological capabilities to detect drug-related activity so that we can intervene proactively. If you witness illegal behavior on Snapchat, please use our in-app tools to report it quickly and confidentially, so we can take action,” Racusen said. “We have no higher priority than keeping Snapchat a safe environment and we will continue to invest in protecting our community.”

Over the past few months, I have heard from many alarmed families, asking me how they can best protect their teens and tweens from social media predators and illicit drug use and abuse. Here’s my advice.

Understanding the nature of the deal

I have spoken to two dozen teenagers, including three self-described dealers, about drug dealing via social media. Dealers tend to sell to friends, and friends of friends. A wide circle can be breached, I’m told, so they keep their client base small, tight and known. They don’t want to get in any trouble, and they don’t want their customers to get in trouble, either. That’s why they are reluctant to sell to strangers.

The kids involved on both sides of the deal, by the way, don’t fit the stereotypes we parents may carry about drug dealers and users from our teen years. Today, I’m told over and over again, this could be any kid, at any school, anywhere.

The preppy, Type A, straight-A-making kid is about as likely to use or deal as the class-skipping, basement-dwelling “stoner,” based on what my young clients tell me.

In my sessions with teens, I have heard more than a dozen times that drug dealers do not need to prey upon innocent kids to sell their products, whether it be loose marijuana, THC-concentrated cartridges or “carts” for vaping, psychedelics, Adderall, Xanax or any other pills. Their customers are quite willing.

How to talk with your kids

It’s easy to start with what parents should not do: Don’t focus on social media drug dealers as predators. That can be counterproductive. It’s an easy way to lose your credibility with your child, my teenage clients tell me, who will quickly recognize how uninformed you are about how dealing actually works.

They are buying from their friends, people they often trust, so you have to help them resist that temptation. How do we do that?

First, parents need to create a culture at home that allows space for drug use to be addressed with their kids anytime. It’s important to inform them, but also be informed by them, about the drug culture around them.

Creating that culture of trust needs to begin well before talk of drug use and abuse. You need to foster an open, curious discussion with your kids around a variety of topics, not just drugs. Talk to your kids about their music and listen with them. Watch a show with them. Play a video game with them.

Ask them to show you how their social media accounts work. Solicit their impressions, and offer your own. You may even want to share your own cautionary tales about drug use from your teen years. Just be sure to be genuine and truthful. Teens and tweens today have a keen meter for authenticity.

Create a friendly environment of collaboration and open communication in your home, taking you out of the policing role, and creating a vibe that suggests you are in it together. If you become the “house police,” however, the atmosphere will feel far more adversarial to your children. They will see you less as an ally, and more as an obstacle. This is a difficult position for parents to step out of with their children.

Once that trusting tone is set, you will find you have leverage and credibility with your child, and he or she is far more likely to heed your words.

Now, if you feel as if you are already deep in the drug abuse issue with your child, I suggest a reset conversation with him or her. Let them know you are aware of the problem, and set ground rules for safety, of course. But set a tone of collaboration and problem-solving with them to mitigate the problem. You are a team. As a parent, you will need to do some work to calm your own anxieties to avoid a strictly adversarial position, which may well prove counterproductive.

That’s when it’s time to discuss the dangers drugs can present, and the unreliability and potential threat of any drug you buy, whether it be off a menu on social media or otherwise.

Kids do have a false sense of safety when they’re buying from someone they know. I have worked with far too many kids over the past few years who have been cavalier about the dangers around using illicit drugs and buying them online, especially if it’s from a friend they’ve bought from in the past. Parents therefore need to highlight the fact that one bad decision in this area may be far from innocuous. It can be life-altering and, in some tragic cases, life-ending.

Even the dealer your child knows and trusts doesn’t always know exactly what they’re selling. They can inadvertently pass on a dangerous, laced or lethal product. These are not conversations we can skip with our kids.

But if we do not set the proper tone, we may not get through to them at all. As their health and safety are at risk, we cannot afford to lose our voice in these discussions.