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As an educator, counselor, and dedicated wellness professional within institutions of higher education, it’s important that I understand the generational zeitgeist of my young adult students. These young persons are part of Generation Z (also known as Gen Z and iGen), which has some unique differences when compared with Millennials and Baby Boomers. Perhaps most notable is the reality that Gen Z is much more likely to have been using personal technologies since birth. This has greatly influenced their relationship to social media, health care, dating, and even shopping as they age (Azarian, 2019). I personally have seen an increased use of “technology” to access a variety of drugs and supplements ranging from pre-workout vitamins to prescription medications and beyond. Consequently, institutions of higher education should consider this avenue of access proactively and in response to individual community needs.
College students as a population represent late teens and young adults who may be easily influenced by product and peer claims of being quick fixes to some of their prime concerns. For example, students may be looking for a different body size, something to promote positive moods, or ergogenic aids to complement the increased demands of independence and extracurricular activities at this time in their lives. Unfortunately, scientific rationale may be outweighed by funding streams, marketing efforts, and perceptions of guarantees (Burke, Maughan, & Stellingwerff, 2011). Therefore, college students are fueled by their emotions and daily advertisement messages they receive and pass along via online platforms, including their social media accounts.
Online purchasing can be interpreted by college students as an anonymous way to access chemical supports, thereby gaining appeal. College students can easily type a couple words into a search engine or an e-commerce entity before being offered a variety of products that match their interest. These products may come without warning labels or full disclosure, or with flat out falsifications (McCann, 2005). For example, drug analogues are often marketed and sold under the pretense of “not for human consumption” (Taschwer, Weils, Kunert, & Schmid, 2014). In actuality, these chemicals are most definitely intended for human consumption. These concerns are even greater for those that intentionally access the dark web and cryptomarkets, which are darknet websites with goods for sale. A long-term review by Tzanetakis (2018) found these cryptomarkets to function regionally, primarily shipping Schedule I drugs to Western industrialized countries. Drugs that come from these cryptomarkets may actually offer more purity versus the same drugs bought offline; however, these drugs regularly have a high potential for abuse or overdose and could warrant legal recourse (The Economist, 2016). In cases where the purity is questionable, it is a good possibility that a failed urine drug screen could affect employment prospects, medical treatment, and athletic eligibility.
I should note that online access to medications, dietary supplementation, or wellness services is not all bad. In fact, telehealth has been shown to be a great way to empower people to access and receive a variety of services including those relating to drug access (Hilty, Yellowlees, Parrish, & Chan, 2015). Because college students are still going through a critical time of maturational development, the percentage of college students using online services in this manner may be lower than those who use “one-click buying” or purchase without medical oversight.
In response to this newfound way to access supplements, medication, and recreational drugs, I have found several key approaches to support the well-being of college students. To begin, you must know your specific community. Case reviews and campus surveys are great tools to paint an accurate picture of your strengths, needs, and potential areas to focus programs and interventions. Because online purchasing offers an abundant breadth of options, campus assessments should specifically inquire about online purchasing with the option of having students specify their product.
Annual reviews and data-directed programming help to normalize conversation about this behavior, but specific policy practice should also be considered as well. Whether through honor codes, behavioral conduct infractions, or wellness-related protocols, web-based purchases may be supported through harm reduction initiatives or expectations of discouragement. An example of a supporting policy could include medical amnesty from punitive sanctions when the student follows a specific process alongside identified staff. Essentially, all policies related to the online purchase of supplements, drugs, or medications should directly state that there is always risk.
While it may be surprising to hear an alcohol and other drug counselor and educator state this, it is also important to balance the campus interventions with a review of what college students like about this obtainment method and their substance use. Ideally, this review would be strengthened by a confidential space that is based in professional ethics and commitment to a well-rounded exploration. I have found that many college students use supplements and even recreational drugs to combat fatigue, alleviate stress, and foster interpersonal connections. As a result, substance-free behavioral skills and lifestyle modifications that also result in these benefits may reduce the need for continued online purchasing and overall use.
Times, they are-a-changing . . . If institutions of higher education want to remain current with their student body’s wellness-related needs, it is imperative to address this contemporary behavior and support the students that need it the most. Akin to how these products are marketed to students, I believe we must also promote a consistent message of support and care so these young adults graduate without a reliance on external aids, and a sincere understanding of how online options can help or hurt their health.
Azarian, J. M. (2019). Gen Z and new approaches to mental well-being: Insight Summary. EverFi. Received from https://everfi.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/05/Insight-Summary-GenZ-New-Approaches-to-Mental-Well-being.pdf
Burke, L. M., Maughan, R. J., Stellingwerff, T. (2011). Athletes and supplements: Perspectives from industry, academia, and the real world. Monterey, CA, CA: Healthy Learning. [Streaming Video]. Retrieved from http://www.aspresolver.com/aspresolver.asp?MARC;2163157
Hilty, D., Yellowlees, P. M., Parrish, M. B., Chan, S. (2015). Telepsychiatry. Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 38(3), 559–592.
McCann, M. A. (2005). Dietary supplement labeling: Cognitive biases, market manipulation & consumer choice. American Journal of Law & Medicine, 31, 215–268.
Taschwer, M., Weils, J. A., Kunert, O., Schmid, M. G., (2014). Analysis and characterization of the novel psychoactive drug 4-chloromethcathinone (clephedrone). Forensic Science International, 244, 56–59.
The Economist. (2016). Shedding light on the dark web: Buying drugs online. The Economist, 420(8998). Economist Intelligence Unit N. A. Incorporated. Retrieved from https://www.economist.com/international/2016/07/16/shedding-light-on-the-dark-web
Tzanetakis, M. (2018). Comparing cryptomarkets for drugs: A characterization of buyers and sellers over time. International Journal of Drug Policy, 566, 176–186.
Joshua Ellow is a dedicated father, partner, animal lover, and professional. He has a decade-long career specializing in drug prevention, treatment, and recovery services. Joshua completed his master’s degree, which focused on clinical psychology and addiction studies, from Chestnut Hill College. Currently, he is working on his doctoral dissertation, which is exploring novel approaches to treat trauma. Joshua is completing his doctoral work at Widener University, where he also is an adjunct professor in the Center for Social Work Education. While being certified as an Advanced Alcohol and Drug Counselor and an International Co-Occurring Disorder Diplomat, he serves a sole role as Swarthmore College's Alcohol and Other Drug Counselor and Educator. Joshua concurrently heads the Campus Prevention and Regulations Committee and advises the peer-based Drug and Alcohol Resource Team. In 2016, he was appointed to a four-year term with the NCAA Committee on Competitive Safeguards and Medical Aspects of Sports. Within this appointment, Joshua has helped support the health and well-being of college students on a national scale.