“They’re good. They help you focus.” Modafinil, the latest kid on the smart drug block, is attractive to many students. It’s not illegal to buy, and available relatively easily online if you don’t already know the right people.
Staying awake and thinking clearly can sometimes be elusive habits for students; smart drugs promise a panacea when pressed for time or energy.
Sold under the brand Provigil, Modafinil is intended as a “wakefulness-promoting” treatment for sleep based disorders such as narcolepsy and excessive daytime sleepiness.
Alongside drugs like Ritalin and Adderall, most so-called “smart drugs” are nootropics intended for the treatment of attention or sleep disorders, such as narcolepsy and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Research from Oxford and Harvard professors in 2015 triumphantly declared study drugs can make work feel more enjoyable, and boost mental aspects like creativity and concentration.
“It can lead to headaches, nausea, anxiety – but so can life itself. You might as well take all the help you can get,” one article in the The Telegraph from Modafinil’s early days boasts. One in five UK students have taken the drug, according to an investigation by The Telegraph. This statistic is increased to one in four at the Oxbridge universities. In most cases, study drugs are taken for last minute intentions, when there’s an upcoming essay deadline or imminent exam. However, some students said it’s only the elusive nature of purchasing the pills that puts them off using them more frequently.
“I’ve got a bad attention span and only tend to concentrate for an hour and then take a couple off,” one second-year explained. He said he took Modafinil because he had an essay deadline approaching and had “heard good things about them”. As simple as that. Oxford’s conclusions were published three years ago, and have been subject to criticism in the time since.
“It does help you concentrate,” one student said, “but you have to be already quite focused on something before you take it, otherwise you’ll just be manically cleaning your room for three hours.”
“I’ve never suffered from focusing on the wrong thing, but a friend of mine completed multiple levels of his favourite computer game instead of working,” a student who wished to be quoted anonymously said. It’s not just a risk of spending hours and hours energetically completing the wrong task. Side effects of ‘smart drugs’ can include insomnia, headaches and skin rashes. O
ver the past few years, commentators have attributed students’ increased use of Ritalin and other “study drugs” to a high stakes young adulthood for a generation who came of age into a precarious laissez-faire economic situation: tuition fees, an increasingly competitive job market, a post-recession housing and renting market.
Should these drugs be available in shops? Some say the best way to protect students is to regulate and control the consumption of cognitive enhancers in the context of how they’re used by university students.
The leading professor of Clinical Neuropsychology and cognitive-enhancing drugs, Dr Barbara Sahakian, told The Independent she believed that the licensing of study drugs to students could be a beneficial move.
“I think the Government should look at the front runner drug that people are using as a cognitive enhancing drug, and actually get together with the drug company and assess whether it’s safe and effective for people to use,” she told The Independent.
“If it is, then let them license it, and maybe sell it in Boots, and have people have the usual information about the side effects and then they can also go to their GP before they take it.”
Others say the drugs themselves are inherently wrong to use before exams. Using them is akin to cheating, critics have argued.
“I’d compare it to a sportsperson taking steroids to improve their physical performance,” one student nonchalantly said. What does it mean for the higher education sector if, in a field of universities vying desperately to prove they’re the biggest and best places, students are taking enhancing drugs?
On the whole, academics have issued caution about the normalisation of using drugs. In the past couple of years there have been some calls on universities to introduce policies on the use of drugs – in the interest of fairness and student welfare.
Thomas Lancaster, an associate dean at Staffordshire University, told the Guardian the sector was becoming a “dangerous world”, especially with many students using the dark web to buy their smart drugs.
“Universities need to seriously consider how to react to the influx of smart drugs on campus. Educating students about smart drugs and seeing if they view this as cheating is important here.
“If the trend continues, universities may need to think about drug testing to ensure the integrity of the examination process,” he said.
Oxford was the first university to introduce workshops specifically aimed at educating students about the risks of taking such drugs, last spring. It doesn’t seem like long before other universities follow.