Google-owned YouTube and Facebook make it easy for prospective steroid users, especially teens and young adults, to buy steroids and other drugs that enhance performance and appearance, according to a new study.
After some simple searches for steroids, researchers from Digital Citizens Alliance were quickly linked to numerous suggested YouTube videos that showed either who to call to buy steroids, complete with a WhatsApp contact number, or how to use them.
From there, to demonstrate how easy it is to then procure these drugs, the organizations bought and tested appearance- and performance-enhancing drugs, or APEDs, directly from a link on one Facebook page that had been set up as an online marketplace for APEDs and steroids.
They also found suggestions and ads linking to dealers are increasingly surfacing in content, especially bodybuilding or fitness model content on platforms such as Facebook and Instagram.
In a survey of people who have used steroids, they found that more than half of people who use them are now turning to steroids simply to improve their appearance, not to excel at sports.
YouTube and Facebook have been under fire for airing extremist content and political misinformation and have been taking well-publicized measures to combat these problems on their platforms. They also have longstanding programs devoted to policing other social ills such as cocaine or heroin use and child pornography.
But steroids and APEDs are still a blind spot, the researchers concluded, and this is especially problematic because these drugs cause major health problems and are being touted alongside fitness models and athletes who are popular among teenagers.
A YouTube spokesperson told CNBC that it has removed 90,000 videos categorized as "harmful or dangerous" between April and June of this year, a category that includes steroid use and a myriad of other risky activities that could result in injury.
"When developing our policies we work alongside experts — psychologists, pediatricians, emergency room doctors, and more — to make sure we are drawing the line in the right place," the spokesperson said via email. YouTube's terms of service allow for documentary-style postings that can include depictions of people using drugs. However, there is a lot of gray area when it comes to showing people using illegal steroids or unprescribed drugs such as human growth hormone, or HGH.
A Facebook spokesperson said, "Our Community Standards make it very clear that buying, selling or trading drugs, which include steroids, is not allowed anywhere on Pages, in advertising, or anywhere else on Facebook. We remove any content that violates these policies as we become of aware of its presence."
Donald Hooton Sr.'s 17-year-old son, Taylor, committed suicide in 2003. A promising high school baseball player, Taylor had fallen into a deep depression after abruptly quitting steroids. He'd hidden the use from his parents, and they later learned sudden depression can be a side effect of stopping the drugs.
Hooton and his family now run a foundation named after Taylor as an educational charity meant to inform parents about how easily available the drugs are. That Foundation consulted on the latest study.
The Hooton Foundation and Digital Citizens Alliance have been sounding this alarm for years. The two groups produced a study in 2013 warning of the ease in getting access to APEDs on social media that focused just on YouTube. But Hooton said little has changed and the problem has continued proliferating on other channels.
"If they've written algorithms that's smart enough to allow the advertisement or promotion of steroids to target individuals in various groups, if they are smart enough to recognize that these are illegal, smart enough to be able to take active steps to be stopping this behavior, they should be working with us and law enforcement and others, to get this stopped," he said.
The researchers found numerous links to purported steroid sellers, including one for a European seller of anabolic steroids which showed up directly as a suggested page on the Taylor Hooton Foundation's own Facebook page. For YouTube, similar suggested pages brought people looking at fitness content to suggested video pages featuring people demonstrating how to use steroids, or simply advertising phone numbers where interested buyers could text or call to make a purchase.
In one instance, researchers followed a suggested link to a Facebook page for "Landmark Chemicals," which listed several types of steroids and APEDs for sale and featured one of Facebook's "Shop Now" buttons. After clicking the "Shop Now" button, researchers were bought to another page outside Facebook, where they were able to purchase HGH and a common anabolic steroid called Deca Durabolin.
The researchers paid $360 for the drugs, using Venmo, and received a shipment soon after. They sent them to be tested at an Illinois chemical lab called Microtrace, which determined the Deca Durabolin was real but the HGH was fake.
"There's no way to know what's in some of these, it could be mineral water or rat poison," said Tom Galvin, executive director of Digital Citizens Alliance. He said that hard drugs such as opioids or cocaine seem to be more easily policed on social media, but links to sites that freely sell APEDs abound, especially around popular fitness and appearance-based modeling. In many cases, ads, links and YouTube videos included cell phone numbers that can bring prospective buyers directly to dealers.
According to a survey of nearly 2,500 Americans conducted in July by Digital Citizens Alliance, 10% of those who responded said they had used steroids, 13% of men and 8% of women. Galvin said women are increasingly targeted by ads and suggestions for steroids, a trend also captured in the survey results, which say more than half of those who use steroids do so only for appearance's sake, not to excel at sports.
That's a result that has changed since 2013, and Galvin said he believes it's because of the increasing push of attractive "influencers" and models across all social platforms. He said it's irresponsible of social platforms to allow this push, and they should do more to stop it. "If their analytics are so good that they can know what's on a post so they can post an ad that's relevant to it, then that should be enough for them to be able to take these things down," he said.
Hooton said he's become increasingly alarmed at the availability of these drugs on the internet. His son Taylor, he said, procured steroids at a local gym, which used to be the common avenue for getting them. That was fraught with more danger of getting caught than today's method, he said.
"This used to be an athletes' issue — this was about Barry Bonds and Alex Rodriguez, that's where college kids, Olympians and high school athletes like Taylor began turning to these drugs, like their role models," Hooton said. "The problem has gotten worse. It's gotten more in your face. How differently would the public act if these guys were supporting the sale of heroin, fentanyl, cocaine?"
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the nature of the involvement of the non-profits. The research was conducted and paid for by Digital Citizens Alliance, with the assistance of researchers at the Global Intellectual Property Enforcement Center. The Taylor Hooton Foundation served as consultants.