This year, nearly six million U.S. children will take Ritalin, a
powerful stimulant with effects similar to cocaine and speed,
driven in no small part, some maintain, by increasing pressure to
achieve at school. No other drug has held such a stranglehold over
its market, says Leonard Sax in World & I
Ritalin has been on the market for 40 years now, but use has increased rapidly in the last 25 years--and skyrocketed in the last decade. Ritalin, known formally as methylphenidate, is prescribed to children with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), who generally feel bored and easily distracted in the classroom.
Why are so many kids taking Ritalin these days? Do more children have attention deficit disorders, or are more are being medicated? According to Sax, there are three major theories to explain the rise in Ritalin: a dependence on television, the success of Prozac and the Modern reliance on standardized school testing.
Some researchers note that an apparent rise in Attention Deficit Disorders became more common in the mid 1980s--a childhood disorder linked to the first generation to be raised indoors, parked in front of the tube and its jumpy, frenetic reality. Others trace the situation to the widespread dispensing of Prozac, which gave doctors the green light for handing out Ritalin as well.
A third camp blames an influential 1983 study by the U.S. Department of Education called 'a nation at risk,' which warned that without higher academic standards this country would fall behind countries like Japan. That fear led to an increased emphasis on standardized tests--and a corresponding tendency to ignore skills that weren't tested.
'Because the tests do not measure skills in music, art, gym, or playground social skills--such as learning to play fair in a game of kickball--less time will be devoted to music, art, gym, and recess,' explains Sax. 'After all, if your mandate is to raise test scores, what's the point of recess?' What's more, with so many kids being deprived of these natural antidotes to add, no wonder Ritalin has become the performance enhancer of choice.
Together, he argues, these three influences have created a need for speed. 'Twenty years ago, it was OK to wait until first grade to teach Johnny how to read,' writes Sax. 'Now he has to learn to read in kindergarten. We are in a hurry, and we have no time to 'waste'--or so we believe.'
View A Nation at Risk