Deadly app? West Ranch group becomes national finalist for model linking Snapchat to fentanyl overdoses 

A West Ranch High team was named a national finalist in a math modeling competition. Pictured are (from left) Michelle Diaz-McCormick, a math teacher at West Ranch and the team's school coach, Omkar Guha, Kent Gao and Brandon Chang. Courtesy photo.
A West Ranch High team was named a national finalist in a math modeling competition. Pictured are (from left) Michelle Diaz-McCormick, a math teacher at West Ranch and the team's school coach, Omkar Guha, Kent Gao and Brandon Chang. Courtesy photo.

There may be no high school resumés greater than those of Brandon Chang, Omkar Guha, Kent Gao and Jayden Cho. 

After being part of a team that was named a finalist in the Modeling the Future Challenge last year, the four West Ranch High School students are at it again as finalists in this year’s challenge. And the findings of their research project indicate the possibility of a popular mobile app being a source of fentanyl dealing and, in turn, overdoses. 

“Our biggest finding is that by 2030, we forecast that about 90% of the fentanyl overdose casualties in California will be directly linked to Snapchat,” Chang said in a phone interview. 

The Modeling the Future Challenge is a program of the Actuarial Foundation, an organization committed to making a positive impact by enhancing math education and financial literacy through the talents and resources of actuaries. The challenge is a real-world competition for high school students combining math modeling, data analysis and risk management. 

The challenge had a total of 268 submissions, with the West Ranch team one of 15 to be named finalists. The group was helped by Michelle McCormick, a math teacher at West Ranch, and Andrew Poulliot with the Actuarial Foundation. 

Chang explained how high school students have been affected by the increasing fentanyl crisis — accidental fentanyl deaths increased by 1,652% between 2016 and 2022, according to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health — and while none of the team members know anyone directly who has been affected by the drug, they are aware that it could happen. And as Snapchat is being used more and more by their generation, they wanted to know if there is a correlation between the two. 

“We just feel like people our age being affected and these innocent lives being taken is an issue that should be definitely considered,” Chang said. “And although we always see those types of individual stories on media, no previous group has ever actually kind of attempted to see Snapchat’s direct link to the fentanyl crisis in California.” 

Guha added that everyone he knows at least has Snapchat, with roughly half of them using it fairly frequently. 

The entire process from beginning to end took about five months, which includes the time spent deciding on a topic. The actual research and data analysis took about three months. 

When Guha first saw what the group’s findings were, he said it was hard to believe how drastic things could get. 

“When we first did the forecasts, we thought we had done something very wrong,” Guha said. 

But after checking the work and having their model seen as worthy of being included among the 15 finalists, Guha said the process was ultimately rewarding. 

“It was definitely realizing and seeing that we knew what we were doing,” Guha said. “To see all the plots and figures come into place, and really help us visualize what’s happened going into the future, is super rewarding because it kind of gives us an insight that we otherwise wouldn’t have.” 

As this is a crisis that is currently evolving, the team is working to recommend possible solutions that would help to mitigate the spread of fentanyl through Snapchat. One would directly go against Snapchat’s purpose, which is the ability to send messages or pictures and have them disappear upon being opened, a big draw for Generation Z users. 

“That feature itself is why a lot of Gen Z and teenagers use that in the first place,” Chang said. “So, I don’t think that would be as feasible of a solution.” 

Something the group feels is more feasible is for Snapchat to hold responsibility for some of the fentanyl spread and work with the government to help track some of the dealers using data that Snapchat already has. 

Another mitigation effort the group came up with is better health care access, which would take away some of society’s need to use opioids. More training on Naloxone, especially for younger people, was another solution presented, though not one that would necessarily stop the spread. 

The group is currently in the process of discussing the research with the office of L.A. Mayor Karen Bass to see how the city of L.A. can attempt to combat the fentanyl crisis. 

And while things didn’t always look like they would work out — Chang said there was a time when a lack of previous research made the group almost decide to change topics — the four students are now proud to say they have helped to model the future. 

“There was clearly a lack of previous research done specifically for Snapchat, and we had difficulties finding data and methodologies that we can base our studies off of,” Chang said. “But I think overall, we were kind of inspired to actually continue through with this project instead of just changing our topic, primarily because of just seeing the casualties, seeing the devastating stories.” 

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