Do Kids Need Drugs to Be Better Students?

Andrew Dalton

Adderall and its close cousin Ritalin can make a kid feel like they're on top of the world, even in the middle of studying. But does it actually put them there? One new study says probably not.

Overachieving high school and college students have been using the stuff as study-steroids, either getting it from friends or faking symptoms of ADD and ADHD -- ironically emulating the kids they've probably been asked to tutor in the past. 

Time Magazine says the study from the University of Pennsylvania found subjects who took Adderall instead of a placebo performed no better on a test of cognitive function. But when asked how they did, the folks on the Adderall high rated their own performance better. It makes sense. In addition to its stimulating effects, it releases dopamine, which would make anyone feel warm, fuzzy, magical and super-smart. It's been that way forever.

A few years ago there were a bunch of shocking stories about the crazy kids today and how overachieving students were using this advanced new designer drug to get through term papers and finals. They were in the same category as the "OMG have you heard about 'sexting!'" scare stories.

Then I learned that Adderall was essentially just amphetamines with a fancy modern name for marketing purposes. (See the 'ADD' at the beginning? Clever!)    

Gee, students doing speed during finals week? Could there be anything less new or novel? Pretty sure Plato got hooked up with some for his exams at the School of Philosophy. And at the very least Michael J. Fox started gobbling them in a Very Special Episode of Family Ties.

This seemed utterly insane to me. Giving speed to a kid who can't sit down for 5 minutes? Might as well just give Valium to the sleepy suspected stoner in the back row. But I came to understand the way it could allow the rest of the brain and the body to catch up with those parts of the mind that were leaving them behind. This is not to say it's always a good idea -- especially if we're talking Ritalin in a grade-school kid not Adderall in a college freshman. 

But I would take the confidence findings as a plus. Once school is over and they've entered the working world, it will serve them more than brains. Think of the people who thrived most in whatever workplace you've slaved in. Were they the smartest? Almost never. (That was always you, right?) Did they have the most confidence? Almost always, and it was almost always unfounded. There's another term for false confidence -- confidence.

Then Time later had an update saying many other studies have found Adderall gives plenty of help with cognitive function. I take that as a sign that ADHD parents and adult sufferers are starting to have the same kind of rallying online presence as autism advocates. More power to them. 


Image via LikeTheGrandCanyon/Flickr

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