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San Tan Valley family warns against drug sales on social media after teen's death

After a 14-year-old boy died from fentanyl, his family turned their grief into a mission to warn others about the dangers of buying drugs on social media apps. Alexander Neville's parents believe he died after taking a single painkiller before bed.

"I started at his funeral. I didn't want Alex's friends to suffer the same fate he did," his mother, Amy, said. Alex had just turned 14 and still loved Legos and trips with the scouts, but he also developed a curiosity surrounding drugs.

His parents say when he realized he'd gone too far, he asked them for help quitting. "Of course, we were ready to help and told him it'll be okay. Alex came to us with a plan. He knew where he wanted to go for help. He put a lot of thought into it before talking to us," his mom said.

Alex promised not to take another pill that night as they waited for a call back from the facility he planned to enroll in.

However, the temptation was too much. "I went to wake him up for an orthodontist appointment and found him on his beanbag chair, blue and cold," Amy remembers.

She says Alex likely used a Visa gift card to buy pills from a dealer, selling drugs on social media apps. "I see Snapchat as the biggest offender because they have all of our youth, but TikTok, Instagram, they all work together," she said.

Dealers often post signs or codes in Instagram comments or stories, signaling that they have products to sell. Conversations and purchases are more anonymous and easy to track on Snapchat due to the app's feature, which allows chats to vanish. "It's as easy as ordering a pizza," Alex's younger sister, Eden, said.

While Alex's drug use was experimental, his mother wants other teens and parents to realize people are dying under other circumstances. "There's a whole list of examples of kids who've died from these drugs who weren't looking to get high, but taking them to treat pain. Maybe they were injured in sports, maybe someone has cramps and takes a painkiller from a friend," she explained.

In the two years since Alex's death, Amy Neville formed the Alexander Neville Foundation and has become an advocate for change. She lobbies lawmakers to put more pressure on social media companies to crack down on drug sales. The Neville family also does a lot of public speaking about their experiences, teaching other parents what they've learned.

Neville says parents should proactively search through comments on posts and messages for emojis, like the electric plug, which has perennially been a symbol for "drug dealer."

Neville says parents should simply ask their kids what they know about buying drugs on social media and avoid kneejerk reactions, like seizing their phones. "That's not going to solve anything. Social media isn't going anywhere. You'll be able to gauge by your kid's reaction what they know," she advises.

In a statement, Snapchat officials say they've created "an increasingly hostile environment for drug dealers." Snapchat claims to have a "zero-tolerance" policy against drugs on its platform and is quick to list steps the company has taken to combat fentanyl.

Snapchat started using more artificial intelligence (AI) to find drug activity, started hiring former officers to track down dealers, and working to educate users in the app about the dangers of fentanyl. The app's age restrictions have new limits on minors, designed to keep them from appearing as a 'suggested friend' to people they don't know. Plus, Snapchat pledges to work with authorities investigating drug cases.

That was not Amy Neville's experience after the DEA took Alex's phone. "It took them almost a year to get access to Alex's account. [Snapchat staff] did not cooperate," she said.

She shoots down Snapchat's claim that age restrictions are effective. "If I'm a predator, I just change my age. It's not a fix at all. It sounds good on paper, but ultimately it does nothing," Neville said.

She says dealers misspell the names of drugs, like "Xanaz" instead of "Xanax," to avoid detection by the AI software. "As a society, we've been duped by social media for years, and it's time to take back the power from them. We have to get them to change their ways," Neville said.

On Saturday, August 20th, the Neville family is participating in a "Fentanyl Awareness Event" at Founders Park in Queen Creek, where they plan to hand out free doses of Narcan and Fentanyl test strips.

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