Dr. Laura Berman shares social media warning for parents after son dies of apparent drug overdose

By KATIE KINDELAN, ABC News

(NEW YORK) — Dr. Laura Berman, a nationally-known relationship and sex expert who has appeared on programs like The Oprah Winfrey Show and The Dr. Oz Show, is sharing a warning for parents after her son died of an apparent drug overdose.

Berman, a married mother with three sons, shared on Instagram Monday that her 16-year-old son Sammy apparently overdosed after receiving what she described as fentanyl-laced Xanax from a person he allegedly met on Snapchat.

“My heart is completely shattered and I am not sure how to keep breathing,” Berman wrote alongside a photo of herself with her son, Sammy. “I post this now only so that not one more kid dies.”

Berman told ABC News’ Good Morning America that she believes her son “thought he’d experiment with something and had no idea it would kill him.”

“He was playing video games with his friends, you know, he was totally fine,” Berman said in an interview that aired Tuesday on GMA. “And then an hour later, I went in to talk to him about this internship that he wanted to do, and he was unconscious on the floor, not breathing.”

Berman is still waiting on the results of the toxicology report for her son. She said she thought he was using social media to connect with friends.

“He would Snapchat his friends,” she said, adding that social media allows kids like Sammy to “at least stay connected to their friends and feel less isolated. And I had no idea that there were [alleged drug] dealers on there.”

The Santa Monica Police Department told ABC News in a statement, “A preliminary investigation leads us to believe prescription drug use may have been involved.”

The police department did not comment on the role social media allegedly played in Sammy’s death.

Snapchat, which is estimated to have over 200 million daily users, told GMA in a statement that its “deepest sympathies” are with the family and friends of Berman’s son and the company is “heartbroken by his passing.”

“We are committed to working together with law enforcement in this case and in all instances where Snapchat is used for illegal purposes. We have zero-tolerance for using Snapchat to buy or sell illegal drugs. Using Snapchat for illegal purposes is firmly against our community guidelines and we enforce against these violations,” the company said in a statement. “We are constantly improving our technological capabilities to detect drug-related activity so that we can intervene proactively. If you witness illegal behavior on Snapchat, please use our in-app tools to report it quickly and confidentially, so we can take action.”

“We have no higher priority than keeping Snapchat a safe environment and we will continue to invest in protecting our community,” the statement concluded.

The app, which offers its own safety tips, also has guardrails in place so users by default cannot receive a message from someone they have not added as a friend, according to a Snapchat spokesperson.

Snapchat on Tuesday, Safer Internet Day, also announced it plans to roll out a new feature called “Friend Check Up,” that will prompt Snapchat users to review their friend lists and more easily eliminate people to whom they no longer want to be connected.

Berman’s Instagram post flooded with messages of thanks from parents who said they would learn from her family’s tragedy.

“We will make it a point to speak to our 4 teens and learn from this tragedy,” wrote one commenter.

Increased social media use by children has been a concern for parents over the past year during the coronavirus pandemic, as kids go online to stay connected amid school closings and canceled activities. More than 60% of parents say their teens are on social media now more than before COVID-19, according to a study released in October by Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago.

“We went almost a year ago into a global real-time, high-stakes experiment in what happens when we took every aspect of our kids’ lives and made them digital,” said Leah Plunkett, author of Sharenthood, a book about raising kids in a digital world, and a faculty member at Harvard Law School. “I definitely am hearing from more parents and teachers and other stakeholders about how desperate many of us are feeling in trying to navigate a global pandemic.”
 
Plunkett, a mother of two who, alongside her husband, has been working from home during the pandemic, acknowledged it is an impossible task for parents to monitor their kids’ online activity 24/7.

“I’m an expert in digital privacy and digital citizenship and if you were to ask me to tell you under oath if I know every last thing my own kids are doing when they’re one room over from me and I’m trying to work, I do not,” she said, noting that messaging apps like Snapchat are particularly challenging because “it is essentially impossible as a parent to fully monitor, let alone lock down how widely kids can connect.”

Here are five tips from Plunkett:

1. Focus on your relationship with your kids, separate from digital devices

“I’m certainly not trying to say that parents can prevent their kids from being curious or making mischief or making mistakes, but rather that if you focus on relationship building with your child, it will increase your opportunity to know what they’re thinking, how they’re feeling, what they’re up to and also increase the hope that they will talk to you if they see something that makes them uncomfortable,” said Plunkett. “Because it is ultimately difficult if not impossible for parents to fully monitor digital use, especially for older kids, focusing first and foremost on that relationship building is crucial.”

2. Set boundaries and expectations

“I think it is important for kids and teens to have the expectation that their parents will have reasonable and regular access to the devices that are in the parents’ home,” said Plunkett. “For instance, for an elementary school child you may now be using a [laptop, computer or tablet] for schoolwork for the first time, parents should establish with that child, ‘I will be logging on with you. I will sit there and look over your shoulder, maybe not the whole time you’re working … but every day, I’m going to have a peek and you’re going to show me around. We’re going to look at it together.’”

“That kind of reasonable access in a way that’s transparent to children and eventually to tweens and teens is very important for helping to try and keep a dialogue between you and your child and also to try and keep a general sense of what they’re up to and also recognizing, unfortunately, that there will be no way as a parent to have complete surveillance,” she said.

Plunkett also recommends setting boundaries to help foster what she calls, “healthy, mindful digital citizenship” in kids.

“One example is taking your kids’ devices away before they go up to their rooms to go to bed,” she said. “It helps put in some boundaries, build in some brakes and also reinforces that as long as your kids are in your house, that you are going to set the physical boundaries of their engagement. It’s not, ‘I have an app on your phone that’s going to spy on you.’ It’s, ‘Hand me your phone, it’s 9 p.m.'”

3. Take a breath before using surveillance options or taking away your kids’ devices

“I’m not a proponent of surveillance technology, the so-called ‘spy apps’ that get marketed,” said Plunkett. “I don’t think it teaches our kids to trust themselves or to trust us if we’re trying to spy on them. And I also think it could end up compromising their privacy further if we’re relying on a third-party company to help us monitor them.”

She added of the option some parents choose of taking their kids offline completely, “I do think though ultimately we will make it harder for our kids and teens to grow up and have a sense of autonomy, a sense a sense of trust in others who are deserving of it if we don’t give them the opportunity to connect with the world in ways that are and what a family’s unique circumstances are. If we take away all of our kids devices forever and ever, though I would say as a parent sometimes I would like to, that does not set kids up for 21st-century living.”

4. Advocate for the type of digital community you want for kids

“We have huge gaps in our state and federal laws when it comes to use and digital life, and we have huge gaps in the kinds of trustworthy, reliable digital products and services that companies put into the market,” said Plunkett. “If there’s time to contact a lawmaker or contact a company and bring your thoughts and your needs to them, I think that is absolutely essential.”

“My hope is that 10 years from now, 20 years now, we will look back at the risk that digital engagement poses to our kids the way we look back at a time when it was considered acceptable and even was lawful to have young kids riding in cars without car seats,” she said.

5. Be kind to yourself

“I hope for all parents out there that we can find ways to be kind to ourselves and to each other because pandemic living with kids and teens and tweens is extraordinarily hard,” said Plunkett. “There are countless challenges, some of them are or feel insurmountable and so all the ways that we can help one another to help our kids are so valuable.”

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