Middle-class drug dealers: the dark side of Snapchat
As one mother discovered, it’s not just vulnerable inner-city teenagers being groomed by drug gangs. Sally Howard reports
It was a chance scan of her iPhone that alerted Kate Mansfield, 43, to her 14-year-old son Daniel’s* parallel life. “He’d left [messaging app] Snapchat open, and a message popped up which took me to a picture of a table covered with what looked like marijuana,” says Kate, a north Londonbased relationship coach. The text accompanying the image made it plain: “Hey man, come and help us shift this weed.”
Kate was already worried that something was up with her formerly “bright and extrovert” son. In recent months Daniel had become moody and withdrawn, gravitating to “grime” music with lyrics which, to Kate’s ears – “and I say this as a youngat-heart mum who’s not easily shocked” – centred, alarmingly, on violent crime and selling drugs.
She had searched Daniel’s schoolbag and found telltale pungent green leaves, and small, empty resealable bags of the type often used to carry cannabis. “When I confronted him with the evidence he told me I was being paranoid and ridiculous,” she says.
Convinced he was falling in with the wrong crowd, Kate confiscated his smartphone, which led to several weeks of conflict, with Daniel smashing doors and begging to be reunited with his device.
“Smartphones are teenagers’ entire world,” Kate says, “it’s where they keep up with their friends and where social arrangements are made. There are no youth groups any more. Losing their phones feels like a bereavement.”
The incriminating messages from Daniel’s covert use of Snapchat on Kate’s phone confirmed her worst fears: dealers were trying to sell him drugs.
Kate drove, evidence in-hand, to her local police station: but when she opened the app to show the interviewing officer, she could find no trace of the messages.
By chance another one popped up while she was at the station, then disappeared as well – Snapchat servers, she now knows, are designed to automatically delete all messages, or “Snaps”, as soon as they’ve been viewed by the recipient.
“I was told that there was little the police could do without evidence,” says Kate, who is separated from Daniel’s father. “I felt my son was being pulled into this world and no one was taking me seriously.
Things were to get worse. A couple of months later, with Daniel’s academic performance slipping, Kate was called into his school. The deputy head had been shown a video that was doing the rounds on social media of Daniel and two friends selling cannabis to a group of children in the school lavatories. The police were called in but found no evidence of Cocaine, crack or crystal meth drugs – the group only narrowly escaped exclusion after Daniel claimed the video was a prank.
It was only through grilling Daniel at home that she discovered there was more to it. He had been targeted in a method increasingly typical of city gangs, who groom teens with large social media followings – and generous spending allowances – and lock them into ponzi-style indebtedness schemes, forcing them to act as franchise dealers at school.
As a popular social media user, with 1,000-plus followers on Snapchat and Instagram, Daniel had been contacted by a youngish man (you can talk directly to Snapchat members you aren’t “friends” with by commenting on their posts) and offered a free tester of skunk to “share with his friends”.
“That’s the way these gangs do it,” Kate says. “First they say the drugs are free, then they tell the kids that they owe the gang hundreds, so they have to sell for them, to repay what they owe.”
Last Monday, the Home Office’s Serious Violence Strategy directly linked London’s recent spike in knife crime with the grooming of young people ferrying Class A drugs.
A 2017 report by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Runaway and Missing Children and Adults warned that an increasing number of children and young people from “stable and economically better-off backgrounds” are also being exploited by criminal gangs and called for the risks of grooming and exploitation to be taught in both primary and secondary schools.
Often, teens are drawn in by a covert use of emojis. For the uninitiated, a maple leaf represents cannabis, a dollar sign drugs for sale, a flying rocket a high potency, a lightning bolt ecstasy and a diamond symbol denotes cocaine. While Daniel was never dragged in that deep, well-connected, well-to-do teenagers like him are key to gangs looking to sell drugs among school networks, or via social media.
If Kate’s interaction with the local police had been frustrating, her attempts to get Snapchat to close down her son’s account were “agonising”. It took multiple messages before she got through to the Californiabased company, to inform them that illegal activity was being conducted on his account and request that it was closed down.
When asked to comment, a spokesperson for Snapchat said: “Every single one of our policies prohibit the use of Snapchat for illegal activity. We have dedicated teams that work around the clock to enforce those policies and to respond to requests from law enforcement. We encourage all Snapchatters to report anything to us that doesn’t belong on Snapchat, including by using our new in-app reporting tools.”
Labour MP Ann Coffey, former chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Runaway and Missing Children and Adults, would like to see a This indicates ecstasy or MDMA is available statutory body set up to monitor social media platforms.
“The police can’t police the internet,” she says, “it’s too vast a task. However, tools such as AI and advanced search engines make it possible for social media platforms such as Snapchat to much more effectively police abuse and exploitation themselves. The Government needs to encourage them to do so.”
Vicki Shotbolt, CEO of child digital safety charity Parent Zone, says that parents should exercise particular caution in their children’s use of encrypted and content-deleting apps such as Snapchat and Confide (which If a dealer uses this, they have drugs for sale prevents recipients taking screenshots of their messages).
“Apps like this are inherently risky,” she says. “If anything goes wrong there isn’t going to be a record anyone can access and you can’t rely on any moderation to step in.”
Daniel is still at school – though still without his smartphone – and Kate has set up an online counselling network for parents affected by gang grooming and addiction. She considers herself lucky that “my son’s now realised that this is a world he doesn’t want to be in”, saying only one in five teenagers recruited into UK gangs manage to escape criminal life. “I’m a middle-class parent with access to resources and my son has turned a corner. How many other parents won’t have my luck?”
Kate can be contacted about her counselling group at katemansfield. com. If you or your child has been a victim of crime through use of an online app, report it to police on 101 or anonymously to Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111.
* Some names have been changed
Ghosts: the Snapchat icon – messages vanish like phantoms
Snapchat mother: Kate Mansfield fought to protect her son from gangs