Parents give children Ritalin at exam time
Pushy parents are giving healthy children Ritalin bought on the Internet in an attempt to boost their exam performance, a leading psychologist claimed.
They believe the potent hyperactivity drug will prolong their children's concentration at school, while studying at home and in the exam hall itself.
But they are risking serious health complications ranging from inadvertent over-dosing to sleeplessness and loss of appetite, warned Paul Cooper, professor of education at Leicester University.
There is also no way of checking whether drugs bought over the Internet are counterfeit.
Professor Cooper, a chartered psychologist, made his claims in a speech over the growing use of so-called "smart drugs" to enhance children's performance in the classroom.
Ritalin is prescribed to treat those with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, which is characterised by an inability to focus on specific tasks.
The drug helps increase alertness and improve aspects of concentration and memory.
But Professor Cooper believes growing numbers of parents are administering it to children themselves without a diagnosis from a doctor.
They may be concerned their children are bored, restless or distracted and convince themselves they could benefit from Ritalin treatment.
His warning comes at a time of mounting concern over levels of exam stress faced by pupils amid intense competition for top grades and places at elite universities.
He said: "We are moving into a phase now where informed parents can bypass the medical profession, go online and prescribe the drug themselves.
"I have anecdotal evidence a number of parents in this country have done it. I know of three parents who have done this in one state secondary school alone. If that is just one school, it is being replicated on a massive scale.
"If parents are prepared to put their lives into turmoil by moving house to be near a good school or lying about where they live, why not also use drugs? It seems educational attainment at any cost is desirable."
He added that some parents may believe their children need extra time in exams because of mild ADHD but have been unable to gain a diagnosis.
Emboldened by marketing claims Ritalin is safe, they are prepared to order the
medication themselves from online drug stores.
"My personal view is that any claim these heavy-duty psychotropic drugs are safe has to be questionable," he said.
Professor Cooper is also concerned that parents will assume that because Ritalin is perceived as safe, newer "smart drugs" must also have few adverse side-effects, even though they are less well-tested.
T hese include Provigil, which is used to treat sleep disorders and ADHD, and a class of drug called ampakines, which are claimed to improve attention span and memory.
NHS spending on the drugs has tripled in only five years, from £4.2million in 1999 to £12.4million in 2003, according to latest figures.
Almost 400,000 children aged between five and 19 are believed to be on prescribed hyperactivity drugs.
A formal diagnosis of ADHD takes many hours to arrive at and doctors will carefully assess the correct dosage of Ritalin for each patient, taking into account a range of factors such as previous medical history and weight.
Parents obtaining the drug without a prescription are forced to guess at the correct level for their children, raising the prospect of accidental over-dosing.
Although rare, reported side- effects of Ritalin include cardiovascular disorders, hallucinations and suicidal thoughts.
Professor Cooper is calling on the Government to launch a public health campaign warning of the dangers of buying medicines over the Internet.
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