At least 23 million children in China suffer from some kind of attention deficit disorder (ADD). But many more than that take medication designed to improve the concentration of ADD sufferers.
That’s because many parents believe that these drugs will enhance their children’s academic performance. As regular readers of WiC will already know, China’s education system can be brutally competitive, with children doing more homework than their counterparts in most other countries (an issue that even the government is trying to remedy).
Belief in the transformative power of education is so strong thatmany families are willing to go to extreme lengths to get their children on the right path in schooling.
For some that means buying drugs on the internet to help their kids do better in their studies. One addiction doctor based in China’s capital city told Beijing News that 35% of his patients had been abusing ADD medication. Another in the southern city of Nanning told Shanghai’s KNews that about 10% of the patients in local rehabilitation centres were trying to come off the stimulant.
ADD drugs work by increasing the activity of “action” and “reward” hormones in the brain, allowing takers to stay awake and concentrate for longer periods. Drugs such as Ritalin (Methlyphenidate) block the absorption of these hormones, meaning they stay in the system for longer. Other treatments such as Adderall are amphetamine-based, which means they stimulate hormone release.
In most countries these drugs are controlled substances because they can have serious side effects including addiction, cardiac arrest and psychotic episodes. Yet they are also widely prescribed – in monitored dosage – to sufferers of ADD, or its relative condition, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
This means there are a lot of the drugs in circulation – some 16 million prescriptions are written in the US every year.
The 2018 Netflix documentary Take Your Pills showed how many young adults in the US were also using so-called “smart drugs” to get through college or do better at work.
In fact when Chinese audiences saw the documentary – or clips of it shared in social media – they were shocked, as they had assumed that the American education system was much more relaxed than their own.
In recent months the local media has run stories about Chinese children who are using ADD drugs to get through the domestic college entrance exam (the gaokao).
In one case described by Beijing News a teenage girl was given Ritalin by her mother when she fell out of the top 10 pupils in her class. Her grades began to improve but she began suffering from insomnia and hair loss. When her mother took her off the drugs, the girl went online to buy them herself.
Another high school student was offered the drugs by a friend and took them illicitly until she had a psychotic episode.
People purchase the drugs on online by searching for key words like “performance enhancing”. Access to popular brands like Ritalin is typically blocked but there are well known ‘search’ alternatives such as Ritali or Rita.
Indeed because most of the illegal Ritalin is smuggled in from Switzerland or Pakistan, so the online buyers use codewords in their searches like “Ritali watches” and “Pakistani goats”, based on what they perceive to be the most famous exports from the countries concerned. The drugs cost around Rmb20 ($2.97) a pill with some kids saying they take up to three a day.
The recent wave of media coverage about the trade means there will probably be a crackdown in the coming weeks. Yet it won’t bring an end to the efforts of Chinese parents to give their children an edge at school. In other strategies to boost their kids’ performance, some hire separate apartments where their children can study in silence for the gaokao, while others dose them with traditional Chinese medicines thought to boost brainpower.
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