Tacoma kids are prey for online drug dealers. Who can save them? Look in the mirror

Just when you thought you had a pretty good grasp of the ways young people can be exploited on social media, from sexting to cyberstalking to cyberbullying, here comes a reminder that there’s all kinds of digital sleazeballs out there. And they don’t have to be sophisticated to do harm.

A 23-year-old suspect allegedly used the Snapchat social-networking app to sell marijuana, cocaine and prescription pills to Gig Harbor and Tacoma teens. He was arrested by Tacoma police last week and pleaded not guilty in Pierce County Superior Court Thursday.

Some elements of the crime spree, detailed by News Tribune staff writer Alexis Krell, sound like amateur-hour stuff. The suspect halted his deliveries temporarily when his Volkswagen Rabbit broke down; he later replaced it with a Ford Fiesta. No macho drug-dealer vehicle style points there.

It’s easy to write him off as a lightweight since he didn’t even take himself seriously; he reportedly told police he was surprised they didn’t nab him sooner.

But the impact of social media as an avenue for drug traffic shouldn’t be underestimated. One teen told police as many as 100 high school classmates had contacted the man to buy drugs; he reportedly had customers as young as 15.

Already netting $2,000 on some nights, the suspect anticipated bigger business in the summer months ahead: “North End (expletive) I know you’re getting out of school,” he posted in one Snapchat video, “so hit me up.”

He provides more evidence, as if we needed any, that the digital world our children inhabit has many dark corners full of amoral opportunists. Remove one from the streets, and more will surely rise up to take his place.

Apps like Snapchat and Instagram are increasingly becoming “a quick, convenient method of connecting buyer and seller,” according to research published in January by the International Journal of Drug Policy.

How fast is the phenomenon growing? More than 44 percent of survey respondents said they used social media to access drugs for the first time in the last year. “The use of new technology is frequently harnessed by drug suppliers to both increase profits and reduce risk,” the researchers wrote.

Snapchat is the most popular app for such transactions in part because its “snap” messages self-destruct after several seconds, reducing the risk even more.

It’s also the preferred social-media playground for teenagers, primarily as a place to share fleeting images of food, fashion and their parents doing embarrassing things.

Put those two trends together, and you have a convergence zone where young people are vulnerable to drugs or other illicit activity.

What can be done to tame this wild, wireless wasteland?

First, there’s a vital role for law enforcement. That 23-year-old would still be selling drugs out of his Fiesta had Tacoma cops not pursued an anonymous tip; they accessed a pair of Snapchat accounts and set up controlled drug buys. Police and prosecutors can’t afford to fall behind as technology evolves at gigabit speed.

Second, tech companies must work harder to thwart illegal activity on their platforms, and Congress must hold them accountable. Unfortunately, their efforts are weakened by the adaptability of their own search algorithms. It seems stopping drug deals and pop-up pharmacies on the Internet is as difficult as stopping hate speech, sex trafficking and Russian misinformation.

In the end, the best defense against the social-media drug trade is found in a familiar place: at home. Moms and dads must pay close attention to children’s use of digital devices. That means learning about the features of their kids’ preferred apps, establishing clear rules and installing age-appropriate safeguards.

You could even designate a block of time this summer for a family technology cleanse.

Especially now, as school gets out and long hours of free time beckon, parents must strive to be smarter than a smartphone.