In the back seat of a car cruising through Los Angeles, TikTok’s most popular creator, Charli D’Amelio, is trying to slowly move her pupils in time to the song “Heather” by Conan Gray. She’s doing a TikTok trend called the “Heather Challenge”, the aim of which is to follow an invisible hot girl across the room with your eyes.
Across the pond in a British university town, 18-year-old Mya* tries the same trend while she’s high on MDMA.
“I thought it would be a good idea to try, because when I’m pinged my eyes are hyper-mobile,” she tells me over Instagram DM. There wasn’t a huge amount of thought process behind the post (“I honestly just thought, ‘Fuck it’”), but she was happy to see the video – which isn’t linked here to protect her anonymity – gaining popularity. “I was excited,” she says. “Only a few of my videos get a large viewing.”
These two very different videos exist in the same meme ecosphere on TikTok, a platform whose 700 million global users are mostly Gen Z, a generation often characterised as digital natives who value authenticity.
Gen Z’s love affair with authenticity draws a line in the sand between them and millennials, empowering the younger generation to create messier and more relatable personas online. This influences everything from the angle they record videos from, to a willingness to share videos of themselves gurning, K-holing, stoned or coked-up online.
Enter SniffTok – also known as DrugsTok, or TripTok if you’re watching videos specifically about psychedelics. Like any other corner of the app, the community is built around shared experiences and memes, re-purposing existing popular sounds like “I am lost” and “nobody thinks what I think”, and spawning the creation of new ones, like “wanna get a bag?”
There’s advice on comedown cures, information on what it’s like to trip on shrooms versus acid and tips on hiding drugs from prying eyes. There are harm reduction channels with advice on drug safety, including tutorials on testing your drugs for fentanyl, and – of course – plenty of kids showing off for clout, like the guy who says he didn’t get a bad trip on acid because he’s “not a pussy”.
New Zealander Zach* was stoked when a video of himself on MD started gaining traction on TikTok. The clip, which has 366,500 views, sees Zach staring glassy-eyed into space from the front seat of a car, his bulbous pupils lit up by the phone’s flash.
“One of my friends was filming because it was funny,” he says. “It wasn’t filmed with the intention to put it on TikTok, but we knew it would gain a lot of views, so we posted it for a laugh.”
Zach was right: his follower count jumped by 6,000 and the post got 63,100 likes.
Part of SniffTok’s appeal is obviously clout – both Mya and Zach confirmed as much by admitting to posting content for likes and views, and the popularity of the niche certainly seems to speak to a hunger for drug-related content. But like any online community, sharing in-jokes brings about a sense of solidarity.
Harry*, 18, makes comedy TikToks about experiences on drugs. “My incentive has always been to entertain. If I make someone laugh then I’ve done my job,” he says. “It’s a relatable subject, and the large majority of my friends do drugs. Especially in the past few months during lockdown, since there hasn’t been much to do, people will just sesh out of boredom. There’s a sense of community when you share funny stories about tripping.”
Harry even met a girl on TikTok. “She followed me, I followed her back and she slid into my DMs tripping on acid,” he says. “A modern romance.”
Others find it cathartic to connect with others with addiction issues. Seventeen-year-old Sophia has shared clips of herself high, as well as posting about the realities of struggling with drug dependency.
“I know that a lot of people my age relate to addiction, so it’s a way of me getting support from strangers, as well as them getting support from me,” she says. “I don’t have a lot of people in my life I can talk to about me using drugs, for fear of judgment, so it’s kind of a safe place for me, which is weird, ‘cause it’s so public. I think a lot of people find comfort in sharing our lows with other teens.”
The very public nature of these videos does set off some alarm bells. Associating yourself with drugs is unlikely to do you many favours in job interviews, and most people would cringe at the thought of their mum seeing a video of them high. That latter point hasn’t escaped Zach. “My family has a very bad history with hardcore drugs,” he says. “I’m fully off them now, but I’ve been thinking about taking the video down because I would rather not have my family see it.”
There are other obvious problems with SniffTok: by nature, social media is a highlights reel designed to showcase life’s euphoric highs, not its gnarly comedowns. People predominantly use TikTok to find entertaining videos, which is likely why funny clips of high people chart higher than ones concerning harm reduction.
There are measures in place to keep drug-related content off TikTok – the community guidelines dictate that users don’t display substances or glorify dangerous behaviour, and when content is reported it’s often removed, with more than 104 million videos taken down in the first half of 2020. Drug-related hashtags (such as #ket, #mdma and #comedowns) are also banned.
But it’s clear some videos are slipping through the net, and they could be reaching kids well under TikTok’s age limit of 16. Recent reports suggest that one in three seven-year-olds are using the app.
This is concerning to Ian Hamilton, Senior Lecturer in Addiction and Mental Health at York University, who highlights the lack of useful information regarding drug safety targeted at teens.
“There are very few outlets that provide accessible information about how young people should safely use drugs,” he says. “We know what works in terms of educating young people: age-specific discussion is really helpful, but it’s missing from the curriculum.” Ian suggests making drug safety a mandatory topic at school, allowing teens access to more information on substance use so they’re not misled by what they see on TikTok.
“We need to be listening to young people and engaging them in conversation,” he says. “It’s a failure to wait until things go wrong. What we should be doing is looking upstream.”