A growing concern is the influence of social media on youth vaping within the UK. 20% of 11-17 year olds who vape got them from the internet, compared to online cigarette sales to the same age group (2%). While this can include platforms like Amazon and eBay (which don’t always have the same age verifications or restrictions in place and could involve using a parent or carer’s account/credit card details), there are reports of UK-based TikTok, Snapchat, and Instagram accounts selling vapes without ID verification and using more ‘unnoticeable’ forms of online payment (like PayPal or bank transfers). Some of these accounts even offer ‘discreet packaging’ or direct delivery to home addresses and schools for those who want to hide the products from parents or carers, and very specifically angle their promotion to underaged users.
Our researchers were unable to find these accounts and posts on social media platforms. Instead, we discovered that searching for ‘vape’ or ‘v@pe’ brings up mostly amusing or encouraging posts that are aimed at young people quitting their vaping habit and highlighting how dangerous it is. Searching for ‘vape shop’ brought up accounts from legitimate stores that warned they would not sell to underage users. However, we also found supportive youth vaping communities that were not age restricted for young people to join and discuss new mechanisms and flavours.
The overwhelming concern about the link between social media and youth vaping comes from the platform algorithms. Despite insisting they prohibit any content that promotes the sale of vaping products, the algorithms mean platforms can recommend accounts, pages, and posts that have not been flagged for moderation, potentially leading to online vape shops or dealers. This can create a persistent online environment for young people that feeds into the desire to vape (or try vaping) in their offline life.