Perceived norms and acceptability of ‘smart drug’ use by students

There has been a recent discussion in the UK media about assessment cheating and the use of ‘smart drugs’ (AKA academic performance enhancing substances such as Ritalin) by university students. In particular, the Guardian ran a series of stories in early May (2017) about academic cheating, reports of an increase in the number of students using ‘essay mills’ or contract cheating to buy essays, as well as reported increases in the number of students turning to the use of non-prescribed medications to improve their academic performance (“Universities must do more to tackle use of smart drugs, say experts“).

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For those unfamiliar with recent changes to the British Higher Education (HE) system, there has been an increased marketisation of HE in the UK over past five or more years, including the introduction and tripling of university tuition fees, increased numbers of students going to university, an increased focus on the student as a ‘customer’ and the ‘student experience’, as well as lifting of caps on student numbers on university courses, all of which have created a more intensely competitive HE market. Alongside this, there has been reports of many students feeling an increased pressure to perform well in their degree studies given an increasingly competitive graduate jobs market accompanied by increased economic insecurity (which may not have been helped following the Brexit vote and the upcoming 2017 UK General Election), as well as increasing levels of student debt (estimates suggest typical student debt of £40k+). Given these increased pressures, many of which are associated with recent changes to the HE sector, there are reports that more students are turning to the use of ‘smart drugs’ to improve their attention and memory performance during key assessment periods in order to cope with increased academic stress.

I was asked to comment on the issue associated with ‘smart drug’ use following the publication of a study from our European ‘SNIPE’ project (listen to a brief interview here from HeartFM). Our paper (click here) investigated whether there was evidence of a ‘misperception’ amongst university students of the usage and acceptability of using non-prescribed medications like Ritalin to boost their performance in their assessments. We were interested in whether students perceived that the use of these substances was a common behaviour by their peers and whether using Ritalin and similar substances was an acceptable behaviour to engage in.

What we found was that the majority of our sample (of over 4400 European students) thought that the majority of their fellow students had used these substances more frequently than themselves, and most students thought that their peers had similar or more positive attitudes towards using non-prescribed medications to improve their academic performance. The perception that the majority of peers had used a ‘smart drug’ at least once in their lifetime was associated with a higher likelihood of personally using such substances. Similarly, we found that a perception that the majority of peers approved of the use of such substances was associated with an increased likelihood of personal approval (controlling for students’ ages, sex, year of study and other key variables). Interestingly, only 6% of our sample across countries had ever personally used non-prescribed Ritalin or a similar substance to improve their performance, indicating a discrepancy between perceived and actual norms associated with using such substances. There are some caveats to this paper which we acknowledged in the publication (which you can access via the link below). One limitation to consider is that our data was collected a number of years before our study was fully published so whether these associations between perceived use and actual use (and general reported rates of use) are as strong today, or whether actual use of these substances has increased, is a little unclear based on our data.

There has been some discussion of how to address issues such as contract cheating and use of study aids or ‘smart drugs’, such as whether universities should be drug testing their students around examination periods. Personally, I would be concerned about the possible invasion of privacy this may cause, whether this is really within the universities’ remit and whether this is the most appropriate way to address this issue. There are also issues whereby some students may use medications like Ritalin for genuine medical purposes (so should these students be subject to testing? Or be accused of cheating?), but also that students may use a range of different strategies to improve their exam performance some of which may and some may not constitute ‘cheating’, such as using over-the-counter caffeine-based stimulants and energy drinks, herbal medications and other substances (alcohol, tobacco and more illicit drugs).

One suggestion, based on our work, may be to address the perceived acceptability and frequency of use of ‘smart drugs’ and ‘essay mills’ amongst university students by highlighting the actual lower rates of use and low peer approval. Alternatively, improving students’ resilience, and boosting their general ability to cope with stress, could prevent many students from feeling that they need to resort to using such substances or contract cheating in the first place.

Dr Robert Dempsey, Staffordshire University.

Further reading:

Helmer, S. M., Pischke, C. R., Vriesacker, B., Van Hal, G., Dempsey, R. C., Akvardar, Y., Guillen-Grima, F., Salonna, F., Stock, C., & Zeeb, H. (2016). Personal and perceived peer use and attitudes towards the use of nonmedical prescription stimulants to improve academic performance among university students in seven European countries. Drug & Alcohol Dependence, 168, 128-134.

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