Getting Smart on Study Drugs

For teens struggling to get through school, a magic pill that boosts grades is the stuff of legends. But science proves the legend is just that – a myth – and parents aren’t helping dispel the misconceptions. If your child has been abusing study drugs, you need to get them help before they look to harder drugs for their next high.

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34 min read

Making The Grade

This was it. Jill checked her hair in the mirror one last time after she put her car in park.

Then she took a long hard look at her reflection. The bags under her eyes were the battle scars of her recent weeks. There were books tossed in a heap, strewn across the backseat of her car. Shards of flash cards and crumpled copies of graded past exams, which she had received in the same delicate secrecy that you would expect to find when spies traded assets.

She sighed. A half hour from now and this would all be over. This was the biggest test of her high school life and all that separated her from the major she was striving for. But college needed to wait for now. She turned to her purse and knocked through her makeup bag to find a pill.

It was this pill — this brain booster drug — that helped her stay on course for weeks. It was what had prepared her for this moment — 27 minutes left, to be exact. She popped the pill, took a sip of her week-old bottled water that had been sitting in the car cupholder. The door unlocked as she unfastened her seatbelt. She stepped out of her car and onto the high school grounds, slinging her schoolbag over her shoulder.

Jill may not know it, but there were others, walking up behind her. For the same class. For the same test. With the same bags under their eyes and the same crumpled notes and cheat sheets. And they had just popped the same pill.
parents dont believe teens use study drugs for stress

The Magic Pill: Nootropics for Studying

Teenagers might call these pills magic, but they’re not — the category of drugs considered cognitive enhancers is known as “nootropics.”

These smart drugs include medications, supplements or other natural substances that improve cognitive function.

Revered as drugs that increase brain function, these medications are colloquially referred to as “brain enhancers” and “brain boosters.” Whether the cognitive impact is exaggerated or not, the mythos of smart drugs has pervaded, becoming popular memory enhancing drugs for students at school campuses across the country.

Nootropic drugs can come in many forms: tablets, capsules, softgels, liquids, chewables and powders — some can even be concentrated doses of herbs like ginseng. These are available at local drug stores and on major online retail websites.

All a teen would need to buy one of these supposed memory-boosting drugs is a credit card or Paypal account.

Where Teens Look for Effective Nootropics

Over the years, forums have sprung up online to guide nootropic users to just the right effect they’re looking for. When multiple nootropics are taken simultaneously to achieve — and amplify — a desired cognitive effect, it’s called a “nootropic stack.” Teens can find nootropic stack guides and walkthroughs on forums like Reddit, where they learn how to effectively create their very own smart drugs.

While nootropic stacks do show some cognitive improvement, combining drugs this way also comes with a slew of negative side effects, similar to behavioral, psychological and physical side effects of long-term prescription drug abuse.

Other nootropics, by definition, can include prescription stimulants.

Prescription Stimulants

Stimulants do just that — stimulate the body’s central nervous system. When a person takes a prescription stimulant, or “upper,” their brain releases an excess of natural chemicals like dopamine that elevate a person’s mood, alertness and motor activity.

For a person whose brain has a dopamine deficiency, like those with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), stimulants can be the key to improving their productivity, focus and alertness. In combination with behavioral therapy, these drugs allow kids with ADHD who are hyperactive, inattentive and impulsive to keep up with their peers in the classroom and stay academically competitive.

Stimulants improve symptoms in 70% of the patients they’re prescribed for.

When used properly, these drugs:

  • Make patients calmer
  • Make patients organize their thoughts better
  • Make patients less stubborn and less rigid
  • Enable patients to perform better in school

Pills laying out on counterWhile stimulants have been shown to improve academic performance in people with ADHD, these “study drugs” have also inaccurately developed a reputation for doing the same for regular students — who the medical community call “cognitively normal.”

The science behind these pills is the same — stimulants affect everyone the same, regardless of whether they have a dopamine deficiency or not. For the cognitively normal who have standard amounts of dopamine and other neurotransmitters in their brains, using prescription stimulants causes an excess of these natural chemicals in the brain.

Users may notice they won’t get hungry or tired for several hours to several days, and they’ll experience an intense ability to focus. Faced with pressure of exams and parental expectations, these “study drugs” are exactly what kids think they need to get the grades they want.

Research proves that isn’t true, however.

Many teens get access to prescription drugs from people around them — this is no different in the case of stimulant abuse.

The most popular stimulants amongst teens include:

  • Adderall – A popular amphetamine, 614,000 teens aged 12–17 have admitted using the drug for nonmedical reasons at some point. Abuse of the drug leads to almost 1,500 emergency room visits every year, and serious side effects can include insomnia and stroke.
  • Ritalin – A brand name for methylphenidate, nonmedical use of the drug is illegal and is believed to serve as a gateway drug to eventual cheaper, harder drugs like meth. Serious side effects can include hallucinations and lack of appetite.
  • Concerta – A popular methylphenidate drug, most teens who use the drug recreationally get it from a friend who has a prescription for it. Snorting crushed pills has become popular among teens — in order to amplify the effects of the high. Dangers of nonmedical use of Concerta can include disrupted sleep patterns, vision disturbances and stroke.
  • Vyvanse – Initially billed as a medication with low abuse potential — and intended for younger children — nonmedical use of the drug has nonetheless pervaded among adolescents. Serious side effects include abnormalities in brain chemistry, delirium, and seizures.
  • Modafinil – This eugeroic medication is often prescribed for narcolepsy but has gained incredible popularity among adolescents for its ability to shut down the body’s need for sleep — the perfect solution for all-night cramming before tests. It is often referred to as its brand name “Provigil.” In some cases, Provigil abuse can lead to life-threatening skin conditions and recurring suicidal thoughts.

Study Drugs Guide

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Misperceptions of Stimulant Use

The numbers don’t lie. Even though students who take study drugs think they’re improving in school, they’re not. In some cases, scientific research even shows the opposite — these students do worse in school.

effects of study drug abuse college high school students stat

“That’s the popular perception, but that’s actually not true. No one has been able to show that there’s any benefit,” said the University of Maryland School of Public Health’s Kimberly Caldeira, a senior faculty specialist with its Department of Behavioral of Community Health and associate director of its Center on Young Adult Health and Development.

Caldeira said in her 10 years researching this topic, she has never seen evidence the drugs work as a study aid.

“When people take them, they feel a sense of increased activity — ‘Oh, I can accomplish so much’ — but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s an accurate perception of what their productivity and learning is. It doesn’t necessarily translate into a better product.”Kimberly Caldeira, University of Maryland School of Public Health researcher

Her research proves the opposite of the assumption, in fact.

Rather than doing better in school, surveyed first-year college students who used the drugs non-medically skipped twice as many classes, had lower GPAs and spent more time partying and less time studying than their non-using peers.

Dr. Stephen Hinshaw, co-author of “The ADHD Explosion,” professor of psychology at the University of California–Berkeley and psychology vice chair at the University of California–San Francisco, said he agrees with Caldeira.

“For nearly everyone who takes them, stimulants keep one up later with an ability to focus… It’s clear that for people with ADHD taking prescription stimulants under good medical care, the pills facilitate not just alertness, but also several indicators of better learning.”

“However, for people without ADHD, the best studies show that indicators of true learning are not aided by the medications, even though alertness is.”Dr. Stephen Hinshaw, University of California–San Francisco vice chair of psychology

Dr. Keith Conners, a psychologist, professor emeritus at Duke University and founder of the Duke ADHD Program, has spent more than 50 years researching ADHD and medications associated with the disorders.

“It doesn’t work,” he said simply. “In fact, it creates problems [for kids who use these drugs to get better grades]. When you start taking these drugs you tend to lose a lot of sleep, whether you’re studying or not. But ultimately that has negative consequences for your performance at school. Evidence supports this is a bad road to get on as far as effect on academic performance.”

Conners did admit, in his experience, the drugs may help students focus better on a one-time basis.

“Unfortunately, it’s true in the immediate present. If you take it as a one-time occurrence, that would be something that would not have any difficult consequences. But, in fact, what happens is that most kids who are using these as study drugs use them off and on, or use them multiple times,” Conners said.

And that’s where it can get dangerous.

The Dangers of Study Aid Drug Abuse

Even though these drugs are medically prescribed, it doesn’t mean they aren’t dangerous. Abuse of these study drugs comes with several severe health risks, including addiction, as well as legal implications for those caught giving away and non-medically using the drugs.
study aid drug dangers health risks teenagers

Health Risks

In addition to the “positive” symptoms users may be looking for, all of these prescriptions also carry the possibility of negative side effects like:

  • Stomach pain
  • Headache
  • Increased blood pressure
  • Increased heart rate
  • Tics
  • Restlessness
  • Dizziness
  • Insomnia
  • Loss of appetite

Medical supervision is important when taking stimulants because even kids with a prescription can experience these symptoms, which doctors can combat by adjusting dosage and other variables. This point is moot, however, if the person taking the pills isn’t the one with a prescription — and therein lies the problem.

These study aid drugs are often diverted to people without prescriptions.

Like graduating high school senior Jill, who doesn’t have ADHD and doesn’t need a prescription for Adderall, but the girl who sits behind her in advanced biology — the girl she buys the pills from — does.

In these cases — especially because prescriptive instructions are wholly disregarded — the side effects are far more dangerous:

  • Erratic, violent behavior
  • Hallucinations
  • Psychosis and panic
  • Convulsions and seizures
  • Malnutrition
  • Epilepsy and brain damage
  • Liver, kidney and lung damage
  • Long-term elevated blood pressure, which can lead to heart attacks and strokes
  • Ventricular arrhythmia
  • Myocardial infarction
  • Sudden death

Any reckless dose can be fatal, but even a normal dose can be deadly to an abuser who has one of the several pre-existing conditions that stimulants can agitate:

  • Heart disease
  • Heart defects
  • High blood pressure
  • Hyperthyroidism
  • Glaucoma
  • High anxiety

The Threat of Addiction

Study drugs don’t get the same rap cocaine does, but according to the Drug Enforcement Administration they very well should. The DEA classifies stimulants in the same category as cocaine, methadone, oxycodone and morphine. These Schedule II drugs are understood to be potent substances that have a high potential for abuse, often leading to psychological or physical dependence that can turn occasional users of these drugs into regular abusers who can’t live without them.

Addiction is a very “real threat” for abusers, Caldeira said.

“That’s why these drugs are controlled substances. They have significant abuse potential. Dependence is one of those possible outcomes.”Kimberley Caldeira, University of Maryland School of Public Health researcher

Stimulant medications — especially amphetamine-based drugs like Adderall — are habit-forming. The drugs affect the brain by triggering dopamine production as a way of rewarding itself with a pleasurable sensation. The more teens use these drugs, the more they risk warping the brain’s reward system, or achieving tolerance of the drug. Once the brain gets hooked on this new-found pleasure trigger, it stops functionally optimally unless there’s more of this trigger.

This process is called physical dependence. Dependence and addiction — intense cravings to repeat a behavior like drinking alcohol or gambling despite the harmful outcome — often accompany each other, but don’t necessarily occur simultaneously. Once a person stops the behavior their body begins detoxification, or removing the toxins from its system. During this time users typically feel psychologically and/or physically painful symptoms, called withdrawal. This fear of experiencing withdrawal often causes a user to continue their bad habits, and can lead to relapse (when a sober abuser begins indulging their bad habits again.)

According to Hinshaw, the risk of addiction for someone with ADHD who follows their prescription is less than one in 100.

“But it’s as high as 15% in the general population,” he said. “Over the course of weeks, tolerance develops, the person needs more of the stimulant to achieve the same ‘high,’ and disaster can result.”

Nootropic drugs like stimulants are considered “gateway drugs” because abusers who become addicts eventually look to harder drugs, like cocaine and heroin.

“If your kids get started on it … they’re going to like it,” Conners said. “They’ll say ‘Wow, I feel so much better when I take it. I like taking it even when I’m not studying. I can go to a party and enjoy myself tremendously.’ But when that starts to go downhill, where the drugs become a real downer, they look for something to pick them up, and that thing that picks you up is the next level, which is cocaine.

“That’s the typical progression: people get hooked and after a month or so, maybe three months, maybe six months of use, the effect is no longer as nice and euphoric. In fact, you’re starting to get a down, depressive mood from them. So the typical course is to switch to cocaine or heroin. … That’s the gateway you don’t want to see because opioid use is really deadly.”

One 2004 study of drugs in college proves this. Non-medical users were 10 times more likely to report marijuana use, nearly seven times more likely to binge drink and more than 20 times more likely to use cocaine than nonusers.

Legal Trouble

Students can also get into trouble with the law if caught using the drugs without a prescription, or diverting their own prescription.

Those caught with stimulants who don’t have a prescription may face criminal charges for possession. Those who are caught selling these study drugs, or caught possessing the drugs with intent to sell, may face felony charges. While having a prescription for the drugs may protect you in the former situation, it’s no defense in the latter scenario.
Teenagers buying and selling drugs

Federal law defines the felony charges as 5–20 years in prison, $250,000–$5 million in fines, or a combination of both.

The punishment is steeper when a school is involved. If a person is convicted of selling or intent to sell near a school, under the Controlled Substances Act they will face double the maximum prison sentence, fine and term of supervised release.

Conviction of these crimes can also interfere with a student’s future plans. They may not be able to pursue a certain career path, like law enforcement or military service, due to their criminal record, and can even lose scholarships or admissions offers to colleges.

Some schools even consider merely using these drugs the equivalent of cheating. Getting caught can mean suspension, expulsion, or revocation of a scholarship or college offer.

Even though the drugs don’t make the user do better in school, some academic institutions consider the intent to cheat just as offensive as actually cheating.

Study Drug Abuse: Facts & Statistics

This brings us back to the drugs: who is using them and where do they get them from?

One 2003 research project reveals relevant statistics after studying a random sample of the college population.

Of those surveyed, 2% said during the previous year they had a prescription for stimulants. Conversely, 5.4% of students said during the previous year they had non-medically used stimulants as study drugs. The abuser population is almost three times the prescribed population, with very little crossover between the two groups.

And who is feeding these addictions and poor habits? The 2%.

Of the students with prescriptions, 54% said a friend or peer had asked them to sell, trade or give away their medication.

Very few reported getting study drugs from a drug dealer and none said they’d bought them on the Internet.

“The only way kids get study drugs illegally is through other kids that got it legally,” said Conners.

The data revealed several common characteristics of abusers, including:

  • White
  • Male
  • Upperclassmen (not freshmen)
  • Low GPA (B or lower)
  • Exposure to ADHD medication during high school or early college
  • Lived off-campus or in an apartment

young woman studying in library

The data also suggests the academic performance myth lives on. Not only were students with a B or lower GPA almost two times as likely to use stimulants non-medically than those with a B+ or higher, but there were twice as many college students using the drugs as non-students of the same age.

But drug use in general can be a slippery slope, as experts have already testified. The study drug users surveyed were much more likely to also abuse other drugs than non-stimulant users.

Other Drugs Abused by Stimulant and Non-Stimulant Users

drug use chart

Overall, the data is undeniable: the non-medical use of study drugs among the young adult student population is a problem, one that is growing, and one that can lead to many serious health afflictions including prescription drug addiction.

And it’s not a problem isolated to the college community.

Not Just A College Thing

In 2015, 350,000 high school seniors used amphetamines they weren’t prescribed.

Teens as young as middle schoolers seek out the drugs in an attempt to get ahead in school, to boost their performance in a club or activity, or simply to have fun.

In the last year, 7.7% of 12th graders took study drugs for non-medicinal use. This is compared to only 5.2% who used synthetic cannabinoids (like K2 or Spice), 4.2% who used hallucinogens, 3.6% who used MDMA (or Ecstasy), and 2.5% who used cocaine.

Unlike other drugs that are stolen or purchased from drug dealers for high prices, most kids get the pills from people with prescriptions — family, friends or extended social networks — typically for free. Those who do sell the drugs, with prices ranging from $5–$20 per pill, are typically college-aged and use the sales as a way to make extra cash.
teens stimulant drugs possession jail time

When they don’t buy or borrow the pills from friends or classmates, kids take them from the medicine cabinet at home.

Or worse — some looking for their next hit, or to make a profit, are now getting prescriptions on their own by faking ADHD symptoms in front of their doctors.

Some students are also resorting to learning about nootropic drug stacks to achieve cognitive improvement.

In these instances, the dangers to a teenager’s health, academics and legal standing are clear, and yet when parents talk to their kids about drugs, they almost always harp on the heavy-hitters like cocaine and rarely mention stimulants and study drugs.

This is where we find the disconnect.

Parents seem to be in the dark on the prevalence of this drug abuse among teenagers.

A 2013 University of Michigan study found that only 1% of parents believed their high schooler had used these drugs. Meanwhile, data shows that 10% of 10th graders and 12% of 12th graders have said they’ve used the drug for non-therapeutic reasons at some point in their life.

It’s true, this trend does not impact most students. It doesn’t even impact a majority.

Some researchers, like Caldeira, take offense with the word “epidemic,” which many journalists use in association with study drug trends.

“It’s not as though everyone is doing it,” she said. “Epidemic kind of plays into this whole idea that everyone does it and it’s normal, but not everyone is.”

Still, that doesn’t mean the trend isn’t a threat. Data only shows growth in the number of children using these drugs.

Trends of Stimulant Abuse

Over the last 20 years, prescription stimulant consumption in the U.S. has risen by 800%.

In other words, in the same amount of time it’s taken the hit 1990s sitcom Full House to turn into a sequel, Fuller House, we’ve seen stimulants quite literally sweep across America.
high school seniors nonmedical use amphetamine drugs

“This is something that has been going on for quite a while now, at least a couple of decades,” Caldeira said.

There’s more of it to go around now than there ever was before.

The DEA has tried to do their part in helping curb illegal use and diversion of stimulants. They do this by setting quotas on how much of these drugs can be produced annually. This ensures that outside of what’s legally prescribed there is no surplus and no amount of the drugs unaccounted for — an attempt to curb illegal use and drug diversion.

So why have the quotas and consumption only increased over two decades?

For starters, ADHD diagnoses have increased over this time — in some cases, explosively.

Most ADHD patients are children, and reports indicate that close to 11% of children aged 4–17 have been diagnosed with the disorder at some point. Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows 15% of high school-aged kids have an ADHD diagnosis. Overall, this is consistent with a rapid rise in diagnoses. The same CDC study shows ADHD treatment jumped from 600,000 patients in 1990 to 3.5 million in 2013. Another report showed an increase of ADHD diagnoses by 24% from 2001 to 2010.

There’s many reasons behind the uptick, ranging from change in the law to a doctor’s mistakes.

The 1990s birthed many reforms of American healthcare:

  • More special education programs received federal funding.
  • Federal law was changed to recognize ADHD as a disability.
  • Medicaid eligibility was expanded to be more inclusive of children.
  • Congress passed the Food and Drug Administration Modernization Act, which encouraged pharmaceutical companies to develop more drugs for children.
With more ADHD drugs being developed, pharmaceutical companies began aggressive marketing campaigns, educating the public and pushing pills on doctors.

There was, and still is, money to be made in this industry: stimulant medication sales neared $9 billion in 2012 compared to $1.7 billion 10 years earlier.

Misdiagnoses are also common.

“Absolutely, there’s no question about it,” Conners said, calling “quick-and-dirty examinations” a frequent cause of misdiagnosis.

One Michigan State University study estimated there may be upwards of 900,000 kids in the U.S. that could possibly be living with an ADHD misdiagnosis.

Experts have said there are many reasons why this could happen:

  • Symptoms from another psychiatric disorder could be mistakenly associated with ADHD.
  • Many girls may be undiagnosed because they typically demonstrate lower levels of disruptive behavior. Conversely, for the opposite reasons, boys may be over-diagnosed.
  • A doctor’s bias can prevent them from considering multiple options to explain a child’s symptoms.
  • The standard clinical assessment to diagnose ADHD is often not followed properly. This could lead to under- or over-diagnosis.
  • Although ADHD drugs are psychiatric medications, many primary care physicians, rather than psychiatrists, have been diagnosing and prescribing stimulants.

Conners said when done correctly, by reviewing a patient’s medical and family medical history, conducting interviews with parents and teachers and observation, developmental pediatricians and child psychiatrists can diagnose ADHD very accurately.

Young teen visits his doctor

“It can’t be done in a half-hour visit to a pediatrician,” he said. “Without that examination by a clinician who knows what they’re doing, you get a great number of misdiagnoses. People with conditions like anxiety, PTSD and cognitive disturbances can all give the appearance of distractibility in the classroom or home.”

Hinshaw agreed. “I believe that more careful diagnosis and assessment could limit prescriptions to teens who truly have ADHD, potentially limiting the number of prescriptions inappropriately written,” he said.

Based on the reputation study drugs have received, manipulation is also an issue. Some parents have been known to pressure their doctors into prescribing these study drugs for their academically-ailing children. Kids can also manipulate doctors by faking symptoms to get the pills, a convenient avenue for addicts to get a fix or enterprising teens to make a few bucks on the side.

The misdiagnoses lead to one startling fact: there are a lot of study drugs in the medicine cabinets and clutches of teens who don’t need to be using the pills in the first place.

And yet, with real risks and real abuse, we still don’t warn our kids about study drugs. Perhaps parents don’t understand their teens face more pressure than ever to perform well in school. So much pressure they’d be willing to cheat their way to the top.

Stimulant Abuse & The Pressure to Perform

The push-and-pull of adolescence leaves teenagers languishing between finding ways to fit in and discovering how to stand out. It’s been that way for generations. But for Generation Z, this pressure to excel in school has started younger than ever. Stringing together all-nighters to prepare for a college final has been, in many ways, preempted by a culture of raised expectations that tells kids they need to dominate high school first.

Since Jill was a little girl, her parents had instilled in her a love for their alma mater. They both went to an Ivy League school, whose name and reputation got them far professionally. Jill had been raised to root for their sports teams and wear their colors. When it came time to pick a college, she didn’t want to go anywhere else. But admissions competition is high, even for a legacy student. She was going to need to stand out to get in — taking honors classes, passing AP exams, sitting on the student council and making drum major in the marching band oughta do it.

The only way to stay awake for all of that? One Adderall before an all-night study session with friends, two before a major test, and one before the most boring class of the day to stay awake.

Teens like Jill aren’t waiting until college to get an “edge” anymore. They can’t. They need to find a way to get into their dream colleges first. It’s most obvious in the case of college sports.

In 2003, it was estimated that close to 600,000 kids in the U.S. had used anabolic steroids. Now, steroid use in high school is seeing all-time highs.

Over the last decade, the race for this “edge” in athletics has spilled over into mainstream academia as well.

Just as many student athletes turn to steroids for performance enhancement, students are turning to study aid drugs for academic enhancement.

But good grades aren’t enough anymore. On top of competing for admission into their dream colleges, high school students are also fighting for highly-coveted scholarships to help pay for their education and avoid mounting post-graduation debt.

After all, college education is now more expensive than ever. Over the past 35 years, tuition costs in America have quadrupled.

And tuition isn’t all students and their families have to pay for — room and board, meal plans, books, specialty class supplies and transportation costs can also add up to thousands of dollars per year.

Average Annual Tuition, 2015–2016

average annual tuition from 2015 to 2016

Multiply these costs by four years and one student is racking up at least $38,000–$128,000 in tuition alone.

With the average family unable to shell out the cash — especially if they have more than one college-bound child — most people turn to federally-subsidized or private student loans. Roughly 71% of bachelor’s degree recipients graduate with at least one student loan, a burden most of them will bear for the 21 years it takes, on average, to repay the loans. For those with more advanced degrees, repayment can take even longer.

These students’ pressure to perform is now amplified threefold: first they must do well in high school to get into their dream colleges, then they must do well in college to get a high-paying job that will enable them to pay off their student loan debt, and all the while they must compete for highly-coveted scholarships and grants that rarely come close to covering all of their mounting higher education expenses.

It’s exhausting to think about, and yet American teens are continuing to begin facing these stressors at younger and younger ages.

The Great Recession had a lot to do with it — stories of older siblings not getting jobs and higher degrees not landing greater opportunities has added pressure on kids to do better sooner.

In recent years, primary schools and higher education institutions have taken on a more aggressive approach as well. Many states are reworking high school-level college- and career-readiness programs for middle schools, hoping to motivate younger students to pursue college and helping them make a plan to get there. Colleges are even adapting some of their summer academic programs intended for high schoolers to allow kids as young as middle schoolers to attend.

One of the few studies that specifically researched middle school prescription stimulant use also identified popularity, exposure to drug use and pro-drug attitudes, receiving substance offers and overestimating peer use as key reasons why younger kids initiated use. This data was gathered from surveying 13,000 6th–8th graders — one in every 15 of whom said they had used prescription drugs to get high.

The study also showed the kids who used these drugs non-medically had higher rates of delinquency, weaker academics and other substance use.

Now more than ever, kids are under pressure to not just go to school and do well, but to excel so they can get through college with their credit histories unscathed.

Many of these kids may see using a magic pill or a stack of drugs that help you study as the only ways to make it through. Study drugs offer hope in the form of perceived super-human studying abilities that reveal a way to get where they want to go.

But used long-term, these drugs pose a serious danger. Studies show it’s becoming less and less likely a person will abuse stimulants for a short period of time.

Although statistics reveal first-timers were the majority of stimulant abusers, the margin is closing between initial and repeated use. While 48% of the students said they had only used the drugs once or twice, 34% said they’d used three–nine times and 18% said they’d used 10 times or more.

The longer an abuser takes these study drugs non-medically, the more likely they are to become addicted, and the more likely they’ll present one or several of the dangerous health conditions associated with prolonged abuse.

It’s the risks of this drug use that parents need to be concerned with. But parents, for the most part, are doing more harm than good.

Parents Just Don’t Understand

Research and testimonials reveal two extremes when it comes to parents, study drugs and their teens — either the parents don’t know study drugs exist or don’t perceive them as a threat and aren’t warning their children about these “smart drugs,” or they are bullying their pediatricians into prescribing stimulants for their children to boost their academics.

Either way, it seems parents don’t get it.

Pills on a prescription pad

Pediatricians have become inundated with requests for study drugs. Often, it’s demanded by parents who have heard of what “academic doping” could do for their kids’ grades.

Looking for a reason why their kids’ grades may be slipping, it can be tempting for parents to point the finger of blame at ADHD and demand prescriptions so their children can get a jolt of focus.

There seems to be a belief that because these drugs can be prescribed, they ought to be safe to use — even for non-prescribed reasons.

In fact, one in six parents believe it’s safer for kids to get high on prescription drugs than it is on illicit street drugs. And what’s worse, 33% said abusing ADHD drugs can improve a student’s academic performance even if they don’t have the disorder.

This misperception of stimulant abuse extends onto teenagers, who believe these drugs both are morally acceptable to use and don’t pose a legitimate physical risk to them.

But authorities, like Conners, maintain this too is a myth. He proposed an examination of emergency room visits as an example.

“You’ll find… there is a tremendous increase in emergency room visits in both categories [medical and non-medical users],” he said.

“You can be correctly diagnosed [with ADHD] and taking a stimulant, and still have a greater probability of ending up in the emergency room. That happens when the diagnosis is not being correctly applied or the prescription instructions aren’t followed. Or, it happens when they are taking the drugs without a prescription.
academic pressure leads to stimulant abuse in high school and college students

A lot of this nonchalance stems from how parents communicate about these drugs at home — if they’re communicating at all.

One 2013 study showed while roughly 80% of teens had talked with their parents about the risks of drinking and using marijuana, only 14% had the same talk about prescription drugs.

Parental expectations can be a significant reason why teens turn to study drugs for a boost. In a post-Great Recession America, many parents who spend inordinate amounts on college have an expectation to get a quality return on their investment. These expectations — and costs — only multiply when enrolling at a high-quality public school is no longer enough and parents push for attendance at a top tier college and pursuit of a distinguished career instead.

The data backs this up.

According to a 2007 survey of more than 6,000 teenagers, 73% said school stress was the No. 1 reason for abusing prescription stimulants.

This perspective once again presents a disconnect with parents. In an accompanying survey of parents, only 7% said they believed their teens might use drugs to cope with stress.

But whether or not parents believe it’s happening, or realize the danger of non-medical study drug use, it doesn’t matter — teens are taking these drugs right under their parents’ noses, sneaking them out of the medicine cabinet or bringing them home from school.

What’s Next?

Even though science proves non-medical use of study drugs doesn’t help students improve in school, the myth lives on. With every year, more students — younger students — dabble in these drugs to “get ahead” in school, often totally unaware of the grave health and legal consequences.

So how do you dispel a myth, change “common knowledge” and influence teenage culture?

The changemakers in this scenario are:

  • Parents
  • Healthcare professionals
  • School personnel
  • Pharmaceutical companies


Studies show much teen stimulant abuse comes from misinformation. As a parent, it’s your job to have all the facts about study drugs before warning your kids of the academic, health and legal consequences.

If your child has ADHD and a prescription for stimulants:

  • Teach them the facts about their prescription — that while it may help them in school, it won’t help other kids, despite the popular belief it will. Help them learn how to turn down a friend, classmate or bully who asks them from some of their pills.
  • Make sure they know giving away or selling their prescription is illegal, even though they have a prescription and aren’t abusing the drug themselves. The legal ramifications include fines, jail time and a permanent blemish on their legal record that future employers and colleges will see.
  • Additionally, if they are caught giving away the drugs, it can jeopardize their future access to it. They may be required to submit to drug tests and visit your doctor more often to make sure they aren’t abusing their prescription.
  • Talk to them about how dangerous their prescription can be for another kid. Their peers can get really sick — even die, in certain cases — from taking the drug without a prescription and a doctor’s supervision. Stimulants are also very addictive for people who don’t have a prescription.

If your child does not have ADHD or a prescription for stimulants:

  • Always include information about stimulants in your drug talks. During that conversation, make it clear the rumors aren’t true — study drugs won’t help them in school. In addition, the drugs are dangerous and can cause myriad health problems.
  • Discuss other ways they can make sure to succeed in school, like attending class, taking thorough notes, studying for tests and exams, and asking for help when they need it. If you think your child may be overwhelmed with too many responsibilities, talk with them about taking a break from clubs or sports, or scaling back on their hours at a part-time job.
  • Warn them about the legal trouble they could get in if they’re caught with stimulants and don’t have a prescription. In addition to fines, trips to court and possible jail time, they could lose a scholarship, college admission offer or job offer.

If you think your child is abusing study drugs:

  • Remain calm when you talk to your teen. Your reaction can set the tone for their recovery. Express concern as you find out more details, like which drug your child is using, how much/how often they use and why. Anxiety and stress are often why teens use drugs, especially study drugs they think will help them in school.
  • Ask for help. Turn to trusted friends and family for moral support, and your family’s doctor for more information on your child’s drug abuse.
  • Studies show stimulant use is typically a “red flag” of a larger substance abuse problem. If your child is using several drugs at once, they may have substance use disorder. Talk with your family doctor about learning the signs of addiction and possible next steps, like intervention or drug rehab.

Parents should also find ways to prevent prescription drug abuse in their home medicine cabinets:

  • Lock medications in a drawer or cabinet so children cannot access them
  • Keep a record of the number of pills in each bottle
  • Dispose of pills at a doctor’s office or local health department rather than throwing them in the trash at home
  • Put prescription refill forms in a safe place

Healthcare Professionals

Teens have access to stimulants because doctors prescribe them, so it’s also important for doctors to change their produces to safeguard against diversion of ADHD drugs.

Just as parents may be in denial their children are selling or abusing these study aid drugs, doctors may also deny their patient’s involvement with diversion of their prescription. But the data doesn’t lie — most stimulants that are used non-medically come from those with legitimate prescriptions

Physicians can:

  • Warn their patients of the legal costs of diverting their medication
  • Inform patients of the health risks the medication can have on people who don’t have a prescription
  • Monitor ADHD patients for recent stimulant use using urine toxicology tests may reveal if they are using their prescription as required, or diverting their medication
  • Screen a patient for diversion risk factors (e.g. poor behavior and illicit drug use) before writing a prescription
  • Monitor other teen patients who have these risk factors for abuse or who have a history of substance abuse, using urine toxicology tests, for stimulant use
  • Create a consent form detailing the legal and health risks associated with diversion that patients must read and sign when they are prescribed stimulants

School Personnel

High school and college personnel also play a role in educating young adults about the implications of non-medical stimulant use.

Educators can:

  • Address “smart drugs” and “study aid drugs” specifically when they talk to students about drugs
  • Share the positive and negative effects of study aiddrug use

Administrators can:

  • Inform students of existing drug policies, and that these policies include study drug use
  • Inform students of rules on cheating and academic dishonesty, if applicable towards study drug use
  • Incorporate information on study drugs into orientation classes

School nurses or health center staff can:

  • Educate patients on the dangers of study drug use
  • Dispel misconceptions about the academic effects of stimulants

Pharmaceutical Companies

Some pharmaceutical companies have begun to develop abuse-resistant versions of these drugs that release slowly into the bloodstream. This change will eliminate the quick onset of the effects many abusers and addicts crave, which will in-turn make them stop using the drugs non-medically. Changing the pills to slow release will also reduce the number of pills available for diversion.

“There have been and continue to be new abuse-resistant formulations that are released, and we certainly would advocate for that as a worthwhile prevention strategy,” Caldeira said. “We would definitely hope for the continued development of more and more abuse-resistant formulations so providers have more choices.”


Does Your Child Need Help?

If you notice signs that your child is misusing study drugs or any other substance, now is the time to seek input from a professional. Too many parents end up waiting until the problem grows much worse.

At The Recovery Village we offer free guidance to parents like you, who are concerned about their teenager’s substance use. There are no obligations or costs associated with calling — just compassionate, judgment-free help. If you don’t know where to begin, we can guide you in assessing the situation, seeking local counseling or finding treatment for your teen.

Your child’s future is in your hands. Call us now to get started helping your teen.

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Study Drugs Epidemic
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