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Adderall use as college study aid 'trending' on East Coast

Twitter analysis: Adderall mentions spike during final exam times

A growing number of college students are using the ADHD medication Adderall to give them an academic edge, and they’re tweeting about it.

Thanks to Twitter, tracking roughly when and where Adderall use happens is now possible. So a group of BYU health science and computer science researchers did just that.

Their six-month study, appearing in the current issue of the Journal of Medical Internet Research, produced two major revelations about Adderall:

  1. It is mentioned most heavily among students in the northeast and south regions of the U.S.
  2. Tweets about Adderall peak sharply during final exam periods.

“Adderall is the most commonly abused prescription stimulant among college students,” said lead researcher Carl Hanson, a professor of health science at BYU. “Our concern is that the more it becomes a social norm in online conversation, the higher risk there is of more people abusing it.”

For the study, researchers monitored all public-facing Twitter mentions of “Adderall” between November 2011 and May 2012, but removed tweets from users whose screen-names indicated they were promoting Adderall.

The results showed 213,633 tweets from 132,099 unique users mentioned the drug during the study, with an average of 930 per day. Though the analysis didn’t sort out “legal” vs. “illegal,” use, Adderall tweets spiked sharply during traditional finals periods, with peaks on Dec. 13 (2,813) and April 30 (2,207).

Researchers also found that Adderall tweets peaked during the middle of the week and declined by the weekend. Both findings are consistent with previous research that shows college students who abuse ADHD stimulants do so primarily during times of academic stress.

“It’s not like they’re using it as a party drug on the weekend,” Hanson said. “This data suggests that they’re using it as a study aid. Many of the tweets even made a study reference.”

The rate of Adderall tweets was highest among college and university clusters in the northeast and south regions of the United States. Researchers surmise that the high activity in those areas could be connected to the fraternity/sorority system, which has deep roots in the northeast.

Vermont had the highest per capita Adderall tweet rate, followed by Massachusetts and Alabama, while Southeast Texas had the lowest, followed by Central Illinois and Northern California.

The Northern Utah college cluster was one of the lowest Adderall-tweeting areas, as were a number of western areas such as Phoenix, Los Angeles and Reno.

The Twitter analysis also revealed that 9 percent of Adderall tweets mentioned another substance, with the most common two being alcohol (4.8 percent) and stimulants like coffee or Red Bull (4.7 percent). Other substances included cocaine, marijuana, methamphetamines and depressants such as Xanax.

“Tweets hinting at co-ingestion are particularly troubling because morbidity and mortality risk increases when substances are combined,” said study co-author Michael Barnes.

Researchers hope the study renews interest in promoting the safe and legal use of Adderall and other substances on college campuses. Additionally, authors hope to spark more promotion of student well-being and study habits to better manage the academic demands and pressures of college.

BYU computer science professor Christophe Giraud-Carrier and PhD candidate Scott Burton, along with health science professors Josh West and Michael Barnes, were co-authors on the study.


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Brilliant, more research needed
  9/3/2013 11:59 AM by Arielle

This is one of the most cleverly-conducted Adderall studies I've ever seen. We've all known for awhile that Adderall abuse is becoming a major problem on college campuses among students who don't have ADHD and just want a "quick fix" for midterms and exams. I've seen studies where 35% of students without ADHD admit to using Adderall as a study aid at some universities, and the study here mentions rates that are even higher. True, this study can't tell us exactly how many people are abusing Adderall, but it is telling us where discussion of it is becoming popular. And as the article mentions, when a drug becomes popular, the worry is that students will think it's normal and use it more and more. Epidemiology is a tricky business, and some of the comments below obviously make reference to the inherent biases associated with a study of this nature. However, the authors acknowledge and account for these biases in their actual article, and some of the data they've collected are absolutely fascinating. More research is definitely needed to determine whether or not these reporting rates match ADHD prevalence by region/state, and we also need to figure out in what regions Twitter reporting is lowered due to social stigma or due to the fact that kids in some places just don't use Twitter as much. However, these data really offer some great food for thought and potential avenues for further research that BYU students should be looking into.

Good feedback
  5/6/2013 11:07 AM by Michael

Bryce and Derek: Thank you for your comments and feedback. As mentioned by Christophe in the comments, the paper focuses on the misuse of Adderall. The headline has been adjusted to better reflect the nature of the study. Here is a link to the study itself, should you be interested in reading it. Sorry, but you'll have to copy and paste (it's also linked in the text of the release above):

Irresponsible title
  5/4/2013 6:07 PM by Bryce

I agree with the below comments: this is irresponsible journalism. Let's not throw the word "abuse" around so freely. We all know the saying about what happens when you assume. I have a prescription for Adderall, which I use regularly. But, being a stimulant, it's not required to take on a regular basis--only when you need it. So, it's only logical to take it more faithfully when you need to be in tip-top mental shape for finals. This above-mentioned study proves very little.

Non-medical use
  5/3/2013 10:47 AM by Christophe

The actual title of the paper refers to "Non-medical use" of Adderall. For prescription drugs, one can use (proper, medically prescribed use), misuse (non-medically prescribed use for purposes other than what the drug is intended for), and/or abuse (excessive use). This study focuses on the second of these and suggests that there are many cases of people using Adderall for purposes other than what it was intended for (e.g., study, exams, etc.).

  5/3/2013 7:54 AM by Stephen

We're probably one of the lowest areas because students here are smart enough not to tweet about it...I also agree with the post by Derek, why use the word "abuse" in the title at all?

  5/2/2013 4:16 PM by Derek

The title contains the word "abuse," and it is mentioned multiple times within the article. However, there was no proof given that these twitter mentions are in any way connected with abuse. The author of this news release even said that the analysis didn't sort out legal vs. illegal use, and as far as the information in this article goes, it did nothing to prove abuse either. This study obviously measured the (hypothetical) USE of Adderall, but it appears to have done nothing to show a correlation between tweets and actual ABUSE – at least as far as this news release shows.

To the author: please be careful how you word things; if proof of abuse does come from this study that would be interesting, but until you have facts to prove that, don't spin your assumptions to sound like facts.

Story Highlights

An analysis of Adderall on Twitter found:

  • Mentions of Adderall peaked during final exam times
  • Adderall is mentioned most heavily among students in the northeast and south
  • About 10 percent of Adderall mentions include mention of another substance

Click here to download
Rate of Adderall tweets per 100,000 students by 150-mile college clusters in the United States.

Click here to download
An increasing number of college students are abusing Adderall as a study aid.
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