What Every Parent Should Know About 'Study Drugs'

Teens who feel pressure to succeed may be tempted to take dangerous shortcuts.
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The pressure to succeed can lead some teens to experiment with study drugs. Study drugs involve the abuse of certain prescriptions—most commonly stimulants—because teens believe taking them will help them study longer or get better grades.

Teens who use study drugs tend to underestimate the dangers of prescription drug abuse. And many parents have no idea that their teens are willing to go to such great lengths to try and gain a competitive advantage in school.

What Are Study Drugs?

Commonly abused prescription medications include Ritalin, Adderall, Concerta, and Focalin. They’re most often prescribed for people who have been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder but may also be used to treat depression or narcolepsy.

When used as prescribed, stimulants help individuals manage their impulses, improve their concentration, and stay on task. They are relatively safe when taken as prescribed and while under the supervision of a physician.

But many high school and college students are illegally obtaining stimulants. They’re buying pills from friends, ordering them online, or sharing prescriptions.

Stimulants can increase energy, alertness, and focus. So, a teen who wants to stay up late cramming for an exam, or one has saved a big project for the last minute, may use stimulants in an attempt to get the work done.

The Dangers of Stimulant Abuse

Stimulants increase certain chemicals in the brain, like dopamine and norepinephrine, which is key to treating certain conditions like ADHD. When taken by people who don’t need them, however, stimulants can sometimes make people high and potentially lead to addiction.

Taking too high of a dose of a stimulant may cause a dangerously high body temperature. Misuse of these agents can potentially increase the risk of seizures, an irregular heartbeat and even lead to sudden death. Some people report increased hostility and paranoia as well.

Without physician oversight, taking stimulants can be very risky. Stimulants shouldn’t be mixed with antidepressants or over-the-counter cold medicines that contain decongestants. Doing so could lead to high blood pressure and may increase the chances of irregular heart rhythms.

Chronic stimulant abuse can lead to dependence. Stopping the drugs too fast could lead to withdrawal symptoms, such as anxiety, irritability, fatigue, lack of energy, and sleep problems.

How Teens Obtain Study Drugs Illegally

The 2015 Monitoring the Future Survey found that 7.5 percent of 12th graders abuse the prescription drug Adderall. A 2014 survey found that almost 10 percent of full-time college students had abused Adderall in the past year.

There are several different ways teens get their hands on stimulants. Some of them steal prescription pills from friends or family members. Others buy them on the street.

Some teens attempt to fake symptoms of ADHD in an effort to obtain their own prescription. Since there isn’t a definitive test for ADHD, sometimes they’re able to obtain a prescription.

Study Drug Don’t Lead to Better Grades

Many teens—and their parents—are ill-informed about study drugs. They believe that taking stimulants will greatly improve their academic performance.

While prescription stimulants can promote alertness, studies have found that they do not enhance learning or thinking ability when taken by people who do not have ADHD. Researchers have found that students who abuse prescription stimulants are actually more likely to have lower GPAs than other students.

So while prescription stimulants may keep your teen awake later so he can study longer, they won’t make him smarter. There’s a good chance he won’t get better grades either.

Talk to Your Teen About the Dangers of Study Drugs

Most parents never address prescription drug abuse among teens. Even when they discuss the dangers of drugs and alcohol, prescription drug abuse often gets left out of the conversation. It’s important to talk to your teen about the dangers of study drugs.

Here are the main points you should address:

  • Study drugs are dangerous. Many teens mistakenly believe that since stimulants can be prescribed by a doctor, they must be safe. Explain that prescriptions should only be taken as prescribed.
  • Express your opposition to prescription drug abuse. Make sure your teen knows you don’t approve of her taking a friend’s prescription. Make it clear that drugs should only be taken according to a physician's instructions.
  • Explain that study drugs aren’t effective. Your teen may have heard that taking study drugs will make her smarter or help her get better grades. Explain to her that they are unlikely to help her do better in school.
  • Talk about the legal issues. Explain that taking a friend’s pill is illegal. Make sure your teen knows that carrying pills around with him or selling prescription pills could get him into big trouble.

Other Ways to Prevent Stimulant Abuse

  • If someone in your house takes a stimulant, keep careful track of the pills. Store pills in a locked cabinet. Even if you don’t think your teen would ever use them, keeping the pills stored in a secure location could prevent her from ever being tempted to try them. Keep in mind it’s not just your teen that you need to think about. Any visitors who come into your home may also try to gain access to your prescriptions.
  • Be a good role model when it comes to prescription medications. Don’t ever give a pain pill to a family member with an injury or don’t ever ask to take someone else’s prescription because you’re experiencing an issue. Sharing medication is illegal and it will teach your teen that it’s OK to do.
  • Dispose of unused medication properly. Don’t leave expired or unused medication around your home. Check the label or patient information guide for instructions on how to dispose of a medication. If you still aren’t sure, ask your pharmacist.
  • Proactively teach your teen how to manage stress. Give your teen the tools she needs to deal with the pressures of high school and the competitive nature of education. Teach her specific stress management skills.
  • Don’t put too much pressure on the outcome. Praising her for being really smart or getting all As may increase the chances that she’ll reach for study drugs. Instead, praise her for working hard, but emphasize the importance of being a kind, honest, and a good person.​

Warning Signs Your Teen May Be Taking Study Drugs

There usually aren’t many obvious signs of stimulant abuse. But, here are some potential warning signs that your teen may be taking study drugs:

  • Increased alertness
  • Increased energy
  • Behavior changes or aggression
  • Irritability
  • Changes in mood
  • Insomnia
  • Paranoia
  • Weight loss
  • Rapid speech

If your teen is desperate to achieve more, at all costs, he may be at an increased risk to experiment with study drugs. If he’s staying up late studying or he seems to spend a lot of time worrying that he can’t compete well academically, he may be tempted to reach for any shortcut or competitive advantage he can.

What to Do If You Suspect Your Teen Is Abusing Stimulants

If you think your teen may be abusing drugs of any kind, start a conversation. Express your concerns and give your teen an opportunity to talk.

Don’t make the conversation about him getting into trouble. Instead, talk about your desire to get him help. But, don’t be surprised if your teen isn’t interested in talking.

Schedule your teen an appointment with a physician. Your teen may be more forthcoming with a doctor and a thorough physical exam can ensure your teen is healthy. A doctor may recommend your teen obtain further services or treatment if it appears warranted.

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Article Sources
  • Johnson LD, O-Malley PM, Bachman JG, Schulenberg JE, Miech RA. Monitoring the Future National Survey Results on Drug Use, 1975-2014: Volume 2, College students and adults ages 19-55. Ann Arbor, MI: Institute for Social Research, The University of Michigan; 2015. 
  • National Institute on Drug Abuse. Drug use tends to remain stable or declines among teens. December 6, 2015. 
  • National Institute on Drug Abuse. What are stimulants