|Four years ago, curiosity about marijuana brought an Idaho teenager named Nick to a popular online drug encyclopedia.|
Now 18 and in a rehabilitation program in Southfield, Nick said he became obsessed with the Web site's offerings -- particularly the vaults filled with information about hundreds of mind-altering chemicals, herbs and plants. The site, which the journal Pediatrics reported receives 250,000 clicks daily, also has thousands of posts from users, mostly twentysomethings, about their substance experiences.
"I was so fascinated," said Nick, whose last name is not being published because the drug charges he faced were juvenile charges. He added that the information emboldened him to experiment with many substances. "The fear, the taboo of using ecstasy and crack -- you really start to doubt that fear when someone tells you there's a healthier way. I would never have done a lot of the drugs I did if it wasn't for that Web site."
An increasing number of teen users are turning to the Web to feed or develop their habits, say counselors, drug abuse prevention experts and those in law enforcement. There has been little research into how the Internet enables teens to find new -- and cheap -- ways to get high, but all 12 of the adolescents in rehabilitation programs questioned for a study published last year said information they found online guided how they experimented with drugs.
Experts say it's another danger of unmonitored and unfettered access to the Internet for teens, with the same simple solution -- parents keeping a closer eye on what their kids do online.
No prescriptions needed
Over the past decade, the number of Web sites glorifying drug usage, providing step-by-step recipes for homemade highs and pushing products through questionable online storefronts has increased exponentially. And tech-savvy teens, undetected by their less-informed parents, are flocking to these sites, using them to score drugs, swap stories and further their habits.
One study found only 6% of Web sites selling prescription drugs require prescriptions, making "these drugs as easy to buy over the Internet as candy," said Bo Deitl, chairman of Beau Dietl and Associates, which did the analysis with the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.
It's not just access to drugs that's troublesome -- misinformation also plays a role.
"To me, that's the bigger danger," said Brian Spitsbergen, director of youth assistance for Growth Works, a Plymouth-based agency that helps those with chemical dependency.
"You can find Web pages that tell you how to make ,,, name it, recipes for methamphetimine to hallucinogens to anything else. It's all over the place. But the recipes may be poison. You find a recipe for meth ... that may be instant death."
Under parents' noses
To address the problem, the Office of National Drug Control Policy published an open letter to parents last month with tips on monitoring teens' digital activities.
"Technology has created an environment for kids where they can really stay under the surface -- right under adults' noses," Spitsbergen said.
Now, he added, finding drug dealers can be as easy as logging onto MySpace.com -- and obtaining the drugs as simple as sending a text message.
"Anytime you want drugs, it's a call or a click away," said Nick, who used to go through 3,600 minutes monthly on his cell phone.
Though keeping up with technology may seem daunting, experts advocate simple strategies for parents to stay abreast of teens' activities.
Among them: checking cell phone records, Internet chat buddy lists and Web page view histories.
"The job of parents is to know where their kids are whether it's in the real world or the virtual world," said Jennifer DeVallance, a representative from the Office of National Drug Control Policy . "It's a matter of safety."
Kids want parents to listen
These tactics may help parents learn whether their kids are using drugs, but the best way to prevent them from using in the first place is to have honest discussion, said Ken Krygel, a former police officer who specializes in tracking drug trends in metro Detroit.
"Parents think they communicate with their kids by talking to them," Krygel said. "But kids tell me, 'I'd like my mom or dad to stop for a minute and listen to what I have to say.' No matter how wrong it is, let them say their piece."
That kind of communication, said Jay, 18, of Brighton, might have given him the courage to refuse drugs offered him in junior high.
"For me, it was curiosity and wanting acceptance from others," said Jay, who has been drug-free for almost a year. The Free Press is not publishing his name because, like Nick, he faced juvenile drug charges. "I always said, 'I'll never use drugs.' But I tried it once, and the high was so great, it turned into a daily thing for me."
Jay's mother, Eunice, said she sensed something was wrong, but never imagined the problem was drug abuse.
Her son always denied using anything more than marijuana. Eunice said she also was thrown off by the fact that Jay kept his grades up and held down a part-time job.
"We all have perceptions about people who do drugs," she said. "My perception is that they wouldn't be able to function."
Take marijuana use seriously
Jay said he used text messaging to sell the DXM -- a hallucinogen found in cough medicines -- he obtained from Web sites to his peers.
In retrospect, Jay's mother said she should have listened more and lectured less when she and her son talked about drug use. She also advises parents to take all substance use -- including marijuana and alcohol -- seriously.
"I know a lot of adults say they smoked marijuana as teens and stopped at that, but in this day and age, a lot of kids don't stop at marijuana," she said. "They go further than that. If you think there's something wrong with your child, usually there is."