Skip to content
Surprising Science

Is It Really Drug Abuse If It’s Adderall?

A new study reveals who is searching online for ADHD drugs, and the relaxed attitude toward “study drug” abuse. 

When I was in college, Adderall was the most popular drug that no one thought was a drug. It was treated like a vitamin or protein shake, something harmless you’d take to enhance your performance. While some trends have changed in the past decade, a new study by ProjectKnow reveals that study drugs are as popular as ever. Of the millions of students currently in college, one in six admits to abusing ADHD medication.

The study analyzed Google search trends from 2004-2014, observing the searches for the top four ADHD medications: Adderall, Vyvanse, Ritalin, and Focalin. The researchers then mapped the trends by city and state, as well as by month. Interestingly, the cities that had the highest number of searches were college towns like Austin and Boston. New England, home of the majority of the Ivy League schools, searched for study drugs more than any other area of the country. Even more telling, however, was that the searches increased in the months of the end-of-semester finals, December and April, and dipped during the summer months of June and July.

The number of students who report using study drugs regularly has remained mostly the same over the past decade. Those who report having tried ADHD medication has increased, meaning that it’s becoming more and more casual (with people trying it at least once, but not making a habit of it).

The laissez-faire attitude toward powerful medications is incredibly dangerous. Amphetamines (Adderall and Vyvanse) and methylphenidates (Ritalin and Focalin) have a high risk of dependency and addiction. A study by the Global Neuroscience Initiative Foundation has saidthat “misuse of stimulants is associated with dangers including psychosis, myocardial infarction, cardiomyopathy, and even sudden death.” What’s ironic is that numerous studies have shown that if you don’t have ADHD, the drugs aren’t helping you focus and you’re actually experiencing a placebo effect.

We all like to joke about that Very Special Episode of Saved By The Bell where Jessie Spano became (briefly) addicted to caffeine pills, but the show was in some ways prophetic. Our competitive culture has told kids that their best isn’t good enough, that they have to be better than everyone else, they have to excel. And that pressure is causing them to turn to dangerous pharmaceuticals in order to get that “edge.”

Few are doing these drugs for fun or to escape; they’re doing them because they feel like they can’t live up to the expectation. America is obsessed with performance, with grades and income and status. But it’s a Sisyphean challenge — you study in high school to get into the “right” college; you take drugs in college to make the “right” grades, so that you can then get the “right” job. There’s nothing inherently wrong with having expectations of yourself, wanting to do well and be your best self. The problem comes when you feel like you are flawed and need a drug to fix that, and when you are pursuing an idea of happiness that is not your own.

So take it from this study by ProjectKnow, and take it from Jessie Spano: Study drugs are a bad idea. If you need help, or know someone that does, explore the many resources on the internet, at your college, or by calling a helpline.

PHOTO CREDIT: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images


Lori Chandler is a writer and comedian living in Brooklyn, NY. She has been published in The New York Times and on CollegeHumor. You can follow her on Twitter @LilBoodleChild to keep up with her latest pieces, performance dates, and wry observations. 


Up Next