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Imagine discovering that the “innocent” cartoon emoji pinging on your teen’s phone is not harmless fun, but instead a secret drug deal? To help you recognize dangerous dealings, I interviewed a recovering addict whose parents had no idea what he was up to until it was too late. With our Screen Safety Toolkit, you can get a head start with screen safety and prevention. The Screen Safety Toolkit is a resource guide that includes our best recommendations, how-to information, and easy links to our favorite easy-to-onboard parental control systems. Today’s GKIS article shares the true story of a young addict’s emoji workarounds, how to spot dangerous online dealings, and offers great tips to maintain your children’s safety when interacting online.

What are emojis?

Emojis are small digital icons that are readily available on screen devices. Emojis range from facial expressions to common objects, places, animals, and more. According to a report from the emotional marketing platform Emogi, about 92% of online users use emojis.[1,2]

The Pros and Cons of Emoji use


Emojis add fun and excitement to conversations and social media posts- help convey emotions in online chats. They are particularly helpful because of the lack of nonverbal cues online, such as body language or facial expressions. For example, testing “sure.” suggests annoyance, while “sure 😊” suggests happy agreement.[3]


Although emojis were originally intended to represent simple concepts, teenagers also use these symbols for encrypted messages about drugs and other illicit activities. Encrypted emoji messages enable life-threatening drugs to reach communities faster, easier, and cheaper.


At a glance, a conversation on your child’s phone may appear to be about being at the gas station but instead is about buying marijuana laced with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is 80-100 times stronger than morphine.[4,5,7,8]

How to Tell if Emojis are Indicative of Illicit Drug Use

According to the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the use of emojis alone should not be indicative of illegal activity. Concerns should be raised if the use of emojis is simultaneously accompanied by changes in behavior or appearance or a significant loss or increase in income. The DEA has even published drug decoding sheets for the public’s awareness.[4,6]

A Young Addicts Story

To better understand the workarounds of encrypted messaging, I  interviewed a recovering addict. He reported that when he first started his drug use, he would use specific social media platforms to help keep his drug addiction a secret from family and friends.

Here are the tips he revealed:


The DEA reports that Snapchat is the number one social media platform for online drug activity, and my contact confirms that he and his dealers used it too. He explained that Snapchat is an application where people can keep conversations hidden. Snapchat has specific settings that allow users to quickly view pictures, videos, or messages that will disappear after viewing.

Privacy settings on Snapchat also allow users to ensure that only specific people can view what they refer to as “stories.” The young addict remembers his drug dealers adding him as a friend on Snapchat. From there he would track emoji-coded advertisements on their “stories” that revealed which drugs were available for sale.[6]


Venmo was another platform that was used by the young addict. Venmo is an application that allows money transfers between users. LendEDU revealed that nearly 1/3 of their survey participants admitted to using this app to pay for drugs.

My interviewee admitted that this was not initially the way he paid for his drug transactions. Instead, before gaining the trust of his drug dealers, they’d come to his home to drop off the drugs and receive payment in only cash after sending an emoji encrypted text that they were outside. His mother reports being very scared to find out that her son’s drug dealers knew where their family lived, which made her reluctant to report the drug dealer to law enforcement officials despite figuring out his identity.[9]

Encoded Texts

The mother I interviewed confirmed that encrypted text messages are a useful way to suppress adult suspicion. She explained that, if it were not for other indicative factors like his drastic weight loss, mood swings, and incomes loss she would have never expected phrases such as, “Do you have kitty cat?” to be an encrypted message referring to the drug ketamine. She remembers seeing other emoji codes and “cute names” for drugs, but not giving them much attention initially. She said she was overwhelmed trying to research on how to stop dangerous online conversations and seek the help he needed.

If you worry things are getting by you, let go of the guilt and let us do the research for you! Researching digital safety tools is overwhelming! But lucky for you, we’ve made it easy. Our GKIS Screen Safety Toolkit is a resource guide perfect for those that need smart tech tools for filtering, monitoring, and management plus some time to find workarounds.

Steps to Protect Teens from the Online Drug World

GKIS Connected Family Course

Dr. Bennett recognizes that it’s no longer possible to live a screen-free lifestyle or monitor 100% of the time. And it can be terrifying to know that kids can become victims of online predators and drug dealers. Our family-tested and outcome-based course helps you close screen risk gaps and improve family cooperation and closeness. Check it out to minimize risks and have easier dialogues for better parent-child relationships.

GKIS Social Media Readiness Training

Teen curiosity online can be dangerous and teens don’t always make sound decisions due to lack of experience and poor impulse control. Our GKIS Social Media Readiness Course allows teens an opportunity to start taking accountability for their actions online and become proactive instead of reactive.

GKIS Online Safety Red Flags For Parents

The story of the young addict demonstrates how parents can easily miss indications of digital injury and serious problems. Teenagers are becoming more innovative on how to keep their parents in the dark, such as emoji encrypted messages. With our GKIS Online Safety Red Flags For Parents, parents will learn what behavioral red flags they should be on the lookout for that may signal that a child is suffering from a digital injury.

Thanks to CSUCI intern Ashley Salazar for researching and co-authoring this article. If you suspect your loved one is struggling with substance abuse, please reach out for help. Contact your health insurance carrier or call SAMHSA’s National helpline for more resources and advice.

I’m the mom psychologist who will help you GetKidsInternetSafe.

Onward to More Awesome Parenting,

Tracy S. Bennett, Ph.D.
Mom, Clinical Psychologist, CSUCI Adjunct Faculty


Works Cited

[1] Da Costa, A. (2021). What are Emojis How and When to Use Them. G Post.https://www.groovypost.com/howto/what-are-emojis-how-and-when-to-use-them/

[2]Shaul, B. (2015) Report 92% of Online Consumers Use Emoji (Infographic). Social Pro Daily. https://www.adweek.com/performance-marketing/report-92-of-online-consumers-use-emoji-infographic/

[3]Richards, M. (2019) The Importance of Emojis. Eternity. https://eternitymarketing.com/blog/the-importance-of-emojis

[4] Department of Justice Drug Enforcement Administration. (n.d.) Emoji Drug Code Decoded. One Pill Can Kill. https://www.dea.gov/sites/default/files/2021-12/Emoji%20Drug%20Code%20PDF_Final.pdf

[5] Alabama News Network Staff. (2020). What the Tech? The Secret Sex and Drug Messages Behind Some Emoji. https://www.alabamanews.net/2020/09/04/what-the-tech-the-secret-sex-and-drug-messages-behind-some-emoji/

[6] Jaeger, K. (2021) DEA Wants To Help Parents Decode The Emojis Young People Use To Discuss Marijuana And Other “Bomb Ass” Drugs. https://www.marijuanamoment.net/dea-wants-to-help-parents-decode-the-emojis-young-people-use-to-discuss-marijuana-and-other-bomb-ass-drugs/

[7] DEA United States Drug Enforcement Administration. (n.d.) Fentanyl. https://www.dea.gov/factsheets/fentanyl

[8]Department of Justice/Drug Enforcement Administration. (n.d.) Counterfeit Pills. https://www.dea.gov/sites/default/files/2021-05/Counterfeit%20Pills%20fact%20SHEET-5-13-21-FINAL.pdf

[9] One-Third of Millenials Are Using Venmo to Buy Drugs (2017) Mountainside.


Photo Credits

Photo by Domingo Alvarez E (https://unsplash.com/photos/Cs3y8Mn6-Gk)

Photo by Sam Williams (https://unsplash.com/photos/H0nmXTsrxE0)

Photo by Collin Davis (https://unsplash.com/photos/c3m56pq0J1M)http://https://unsplash.com/photos/Cs3y8Mn6-Gk

Ashley Salazar
Ashley Salazar