There are many misconceptions about study drugs, among students as well as parents. Research indicates that 25% of teenagers believe that prescription stimulants can be used to help them study and nearly 1/3 of parents believe that ADHD medications enhance academic performance, even if their child doesn’t have ADHD.1
These misconceptions can be dangerous, as the use of study drugs has actually been linked to potentially serious health complications, including heart problems and mental or behavioral health issues like paranoia and hostility, in addition to the risk of addiction.2 For parents of teenagers, it’s important to understand the dangers of misusing study drugs and to be able to identify common side effects and signs of abuse.
What Are Study Drugs?
Spend enough time on any college campus and you’ll likely hear of “study drugs,” a slang term for prescription stimulant medications such as Adderall and Ritalin. Also referred to as “smart drugs,” these central nervous system stimulants are intended to treat symptoms of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children and adults.3
There are numerous ADHD medications on the market. Methylphenidate (brand name: Ritalin) is the most widely misused.3 Amphetamine formulations such as D,L-amphetamine (brand name: Adderall) and dextroamphetamine (brand name: Dexedrine) are also frequent drugs of abuse.3
These drugs are sometimes used without a prescription by high school and college students to increase wakefulness and focus when studying for tests, writing papers, or working on other academic projects. Research has shown, however, that students who use study drugs actually have lower overall GPAs than their peers.3
Prevalence of Stimulant Abuse in Students
When taken as prescribed, stimulant medications can help those suffering from ADHD improve their focus, increase attention span, and reduce impulsive behavior and hyperactivity. Physicians initially prescribe a low dose and will then slowly adjust the dose over time until a proper therapeutic response is achieved. Therapeutic doses of stimulant medication will result in a gradual increase in the brain’s level of dopamine, a neurotransmitter associated with attention, reward, and pleasure.2
The abuse of stimulants like Adderall and Ritalin in doses that exceed prescribed parameters and via unapproved routes of administration (e.g., snorting, injection) can cause a more rapid increase in the brain’s dopamine levels and disrupt normal functioning, inducing a rush of euphoria followed by a crash later on when the effects of the drug wear off.
Students are often attracted to study drugs for their euphoric or cognitive enhancing effects. Upon taking the drugs, they may experience an increase in focus and alertness, a pronounced sense of happiness, enhanced creativity, and a decreased need for sleep.
Various Forms of Illicit Use
Some teens may abuse study drugs by crushing up the pills into a powder and snorting it. This produces an enhanced effect and quicker onset—a nearly instantaneous high with a rush of euphoria and energy that is more intense than taking the pills by mouth.2,3 Some teens take the powder from crushed up pills and mix it with water so that it can be injected intravenously.
Using drugs by snorting or injecting them carries a higher risk of developing the compulsive drug-seeking behaviors associated with addiction. Intravenous use can also increase the risk of adverse reactions to the drug as well as to certain fillers that are used in the pills that are otherwise safe via the intended oral route.3
Of course, not all students who use study drugs illicitly do so by snorting or injecting crushed pills. Some simply take the pills by mouth in doses appropriate for their body weight. These students may feel that their use is harmless or even responsible—similar to drinking water and eating protein before a workout. Unfortunately, that is far from the case.
What Are the Side Effects?
There are many potential side effects of study drugs, especially when they are abused non-medically. Some of the more common side effects include:2
- Elevated heart rate and blood pressure.
- Increased body temperature.
- Decreased appetite.
- Insomnia or sleep problems.
Some side effects can lead to severe health consequences, or they could indicate that the user has developed a serious new condition. If you know your child is taking study drugs without a prescription, be sure to seek medical attention if they start to exhibit any of the following:4
- Extremely high temperature, blood pressure, or heart rate.
- Psychotic symptoms, such as delusions or hearing voices.
- Changes in eyesight or blurred vision.
Building Tolerance and Dependence
While your teen’s friends and classmates may think that study drugs are a harmless way to help improve their grades, they are actually putting themselves at risk of developing a drug addiction.3
Students who take Adderall, Ritalin, or other stimulants as study aids may begin to feel that they can’t perform without them. They start to think they need these drugs in order to study, take tests, write term papers, work at part-time jobs, or simply do anything productive. This leads them to take the drugs more and more often, until they build a tolerance, which will then require them to take increasing amounts of the drug to achieve the desired effect.3 Some people, especially those who inject study drugs intravenously, may develop significant physical dependence, and may experience withdrawal symptoms such as depression, irritability, headache, and fatigue when they stop using the drugs.3
Developing Habits of Abuse
It can be difficult for parents to spot study drug abuse in teens, especially early on when their child may appear to be showing more enthusiasm and focus at school. Study drug abuse may be accompanied by the below observable signs of stimulant use:5
- Dilated pupils.
- Going for long periods of time without sleeping or eating.
- Unexplained and sometimes rapid weight loss.
- Periods of excessive talking and excitement, followed by a “crash” (characterized by symptoms like low interest, negative mood, or sleeping for long periods of time).
Regular study drug use can develop into worrisome behaviors. You may notice your child seems to care less about his or her physical appearance and personal hygiene. They may exhibit unexplained personality and attitude changes, frequent mood swings, or major shifts in their sleeping and eating patterns. You may also notice that they’ve suddenly changed their friend group or stopped participating in extracurricular activities that were once important to them. All of these are signs that your teen may be abusing a substance like Adderall or Ritalin.5
If your child is struggling with stimulant drug abuse, know that you are not alone. There are a variety of treatment options available to help your child break the grip of study drugs.
- Outpatient individual and group counseling: Therapy can help people recognize their triggers for drug use and help them learn healthy alternatives and coping skills.
- 12-step programs and support groups: There are a variety of such programs and groups for teens and young adults struggling with study drug abuse. These programs provide peer support and addiction education.
- Inpatient or outpatient rehab: Rehab programs provide a combination of individual and group counseling, peer support groups, medication (if needed), and other complementary treatment services. Treatment may take place on an inpatient or outpatient basis and can last anywhere from 30 days to more than a year, depending on addiction severity. Many teen inpatient programs provide academic services so that students do not get behind in school during treatment.
The goal of any therapy or program should be for your child to learn healthy study habits and find ways to improve their focus naturally. As a parent, you can help by making sure your child is getting enough sleep, eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, and practicing meditation or other practices recommended by their therapist. You can also help them stay on track at school by:
- Setting up a designated study area in their room or elsewhere in the house that is free from distractions and has all the resources they need for their schoolwork.
- Establish a study routine, which a scheduled time set aside each day for your child to complete assignments.
- Working with your teen to set reasonable goals for the schoolyear.
- Setting a positive example with your own work habits.
How to Communicate with Your Child
While study drug addiction is problematic and potentially dangerous, there is hope. Prescription stimulant drug abuse has actually decreased amongst teens in the last few years. According to a 2016 survey, Ritalin use by high school students has declined by 70%–80% since 2001.6 Adderall use has also declined, though not as dramatically.6
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) recommends child and parent education to help combat teen stimulant drug misuse and addiction.1 Even if your child isn’t using study drugs, it is important to have a conversation about them to prepare them to cope with drug use by friends, classmates, or roommates as they move on to college and the professional workplace.
You can start by asking your teen what they know about the drugs, and discuss the risks and side effects that particularly concern you. Set clear boundaries and expectations without being overly domineering or threatening. Point to real-life examples of the negative consequences of drug use, but remain positive; don’t shame the drug user. Instead, frame the talk as a health issue.
Keep the lines of communication open; let your teen know they can discuss things like drugs with you without fear of discipline or ridicule. If you’re still unsure how to have these conversations with your child, consider reaching out to professionals for help. Try talking with your teen’s teachers, coaches, and other role models in their lives. You may even consider reaching out to a counselor or therapist for additional support.
- Volk, K. (2016). Rise in Prescription Drug Misuse and Abuse Impacting Teens. Rockville, MD: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014). Stimulant ADHD Medications: Methylphenidate and Amphetamines.
- Sussman, S., Pentz, M., Spruijt-Metz, D., et. al. (2006). Misuse of “Study Drugs:” Prevalence, Consequences, and Implications for Policy. Substance Abuse Treatment, Prevention, and Policy, 1(15).
- Food and Drug Administration. (2015). Adderall.
- American Psychiatric Associaton. (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Association Publishing.
- Johnston, L., O’Malley, P., Miech, R., et al. (2017). Monitoring the Future: National Survey Results on Drug Use 1975–2016. 2016 Overview: Key Findings on Adolescent Drug Use. Ann Arbor: Institute for Social Research, The University of Michigan.