Study Drugs: The Next Teen Addiction?

What parents need to know about the pressure to succeed

Posted Jun 09, 2012

A 20-year-old student from Dallas said it best, “The most messed-up thing of it all is that in many cases it stemmed from the pressure from their parents. One could argue that they cared more about the end result rather than the process.” She and other teens talked candidly about the pressure to succeed in high school, well captured in the column, In Their Own Words: ‘Study Drugs.’ Yes, kids with ADHD are selling their prescriptions to classmates!

I’ve written several articles the topic of grades and what I believe is a national obsession with numbers instead of learning. The Fallacy of Good Grades shows how the most important measures of success cannot be quantified, including strengths like critical thinking, creativity, curiosity, and open-mindedness. I have challenged education reformers like Bill Gates (Will Small-Part Fixes Save Public Schools?) whose emphasis on test scores undermines the interconnected processes inherent in developing young people who thrive in life, not just in school.

Today, I am compelled to challenge parents. What are we thinking when we pressure kids to perform at all costs? Do we understand the costs? Seriously, I’d love to hear from parents who make the argument that grades trump learning and well-being.

I’m the first to admit that grades and learning can coexist, but how do we accomplish this without placing undue burden on children’s development? It is adults (parents, educators, policy-makers, business leaders) that create the circumstances for kids to thrive. And frankly, we aren’t doing a very good job.

The dilemma that our children face as a result of our obsession with numbers is staggering. In recent research by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, a group that conducts surveys with the nation’s incoming college freshman, students rated their emotional health at the lowest point in twenty-five years. Close to half of all students rated themselves low on emotional health and were more likely to report being depressed in high school. They also reported they were frequently overwhelmed by everything they had to do.

In the same study, many will be delighted to know that our children’s academic abilities (based on test scores!) and their drive to succeed is increasing!

Not surprisingly, this research underscores some perplexing issues that should raise concern for all who value the happiness and well-being of future generations. Despite their family backgrounds, children’s emotional health is trending downward and their feelings of being overwhelmed are trending upward. Simultaneously, their abilities and drives to achieve are moving up!

If we look at the achievement side of the picture, it is easy to think we are doing a good job. But we need to look at both sides. We are doing a good job only when our children are growing on the inside as well as the outside! We are doing a good job when our kids learn to be engaged members of society, young adults who care about the public good and act in ways that benefit themselves and others.

With teen depression rates at an all-time high, some studies show that the pressure to achieve, particularly for affluent teens, may be leading youth down dangerous pathways. Whatever the cause, we must reevaluate our priorities.

At the very least, we should pay closer attention to how kids thrive from the inside instead of measuring success solely by appearances on the outside. If we did, how would that change the way we parent, teach, and mentor children and adolescents? How would we effectively challenge the status quo?

Savvy parents are beginning to take action against testing. Last week, they protested at the Manhattan headquarters of exam publisher, Pearson Education. Challenging whether millions of dollars should be spent on developing and administering student tests, many are beginning to ask if our educational priorities reflect healthy values about learning and success.

What do you think? Would you be surprised to find that your teen took study drugs? Would you be compelled to act on behalf of all children?


J.H. Pryor, et al., The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2010 (Los Angeles, CA: Higher Education Research Institute, UCLA, 2010).

S.S. Luthar, "The Culture of Affluence: Psychological Costs of Material Wealth," Child Development (2003): 1581-1593.

Photo Credit: ccarlstead

©2012 Marilyn Price-Mitchell. All rights reserved. Please contact for permission to reprint.
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