Just because amphetamines like Adderall are prescribed by a doctor doesn’t necessarily make them safe to use, one expert says.
The second half of the school year can be a stressful time for high schoolers with the SAT, ACT, final exams and other important academic events on the agenda.
Some teens may resort to using so-called “study drugs” – often prescription amphetamines like Adderall – to get it all done.
These drugs, sometimes called “smart drugs,” are often used to treat attention deficit disorder or narcolepsy, but students without these conditions sometimes take them when they study to enhance focus and concentration, says Selina Oliver, a school psychologist with Anne Arundel County Public Schools in Maryland who works with high schoolers.
“That’s where that term ‘study drugs’ comes from, or ‘smart drug’ comes from, because it gives that perception someone’s smarter than they may actually be,” she says.
In the previous year, 7.7 percent of high school seniors used amphetamines, among the most-used prescription, over-the-counter or illicit drugs, according to a 2015 survey sponsored by the National Institutes of Health. Oliver doesn’t think teen use of study drugs is an issue in her district.
Teens may be buying these medications from their peers or taking them from a sibling with a prescription, Oliver says. And even teens who are prescribed these medications could be misusing or distributing them to others, she says, so parents should safeguard these medications.
Parents may not be aware teens misuse these drugs and should know the following facts.
These drugs are not safer because they are prescription medications.
Teens may think that prescription amphetamines are not as dangerous as illicit drugs because they are prescribed by a doctor, but that’s not always true, says Rebecca Branstetter, an educational and school psychologist in the San Francisco Bay Area who has worked with high schoolers.
Adderall, for example, can help students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder bring their focus levels back to normal, but when people who do not need extra simulation take these medications, the effect can be detrimental, she says.
Children run the risk that these drugs will interact with other medications they are taking or interfere with underlying health issues, says Oliver.
Students may rely on study drugs instead of building crucial life skills.
“If they are relying on a medication, then they may not develop that work ethic that goes along with dealing with setting aside the time to study,” Oliver says.
Branstetter suggests parents teach their kids executive function skills, like planning, organization and study persistence, as they may be less likely to turn to study drugs in the first place if they have these skills.
There are behavioral signs teens are abusing these drugs.
Parents should watch out for decreased appetite, weight loss, hyperfocus, difficulties with sleeping, sleep disturbances and more goal directive behavior in their teen – basically a sharp change in their behavior in terms of focus, says Branstetter.
Oliver suggests parents look for changes in habits and behavior. “If you have a student who had previously been studying – had a study routine and now is not studying – but then goes on almost like a binge study, that’s a sign that they may be using some type of stimulant medication, like a smart drug.”
Parents who suspect their teens are abusing these drugs should talk to them, says Branstetter. She suggests parents begin the conversation with a notice and explore technique – perhaps note the change in behavior, like staying up all night to study, and go from there.
Very few teens will admit to using these drugs, she says, but it can leave an opening for parents to talk about the potential dangers, healthy ways to improve academic performance and how they want to help.
And she says parents could contact their child’s pediatrician, who may be able identify signs of study drug abuse and can be their ally in discussing these drugs with teens.
This post originally appeared on US New and World Report under Education