The Medicated Generation

Pay attention!

This frequent order from teachers and parents is ignored and laughed at by millions of wily, off-the-walls juvenile boys across America. Anyone who has ever been in the same room with a boy aged six to twelve for more than two minutes will tell you he didn’t want to sit still, or listen, or stop making that noise for God’s sake.

Hyperactivity in children has probably been known to exist since the time of early nomadic Homo sapiens, when those damn rascals wouldn’t stop running around and scaring the mammoth herds away. It’s nothing new.

In fact, most all children are bratty, inconsiderate little nincompoops before adults teach them to act right. They are impatient, selfish, and largely inconsiderate of the well being of their peers.

But there are always seem to be a few real-life Dennis the Menaces or Bart Simpsons that are especially wretched human beings who cannot be tamed. They can’t pay attention in school, and their seemingly unlimited energy makes them adored by their peers as class clowns and abhorred by teachers and parents as troublemakers.

For the first five or six thousand years of human civilization, this bad behavior was written off as simple juvenile delinquency. The kids were disciplined, and eventually they grew up and learned to stop acting like a moron.

However, approaches to behavioral problems in children changed dramatically in the 20th century. Psychologists began to wonder if the erratic behavior of the Bart Simpsons of the world was due to some underlying cognitive issues, rather than simple cases of being bad eggs. Instead of hitting them with sticks until they stopped, we began to study these “problem” children.

In 1987, doctors introduced the term “Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.” The newly defined condition explained the erratic and disruptive behavior of thousands of kids. According to the definition, children with ADHD exhibit “distractibility, hyperactivity, impulsive behaviors, and the inability to remain focused on tasks or activities.” Kids started getting diagnosed, and doctors started giving them prescription amphetamines to get them to stop acting up all the time. The most popular of these drugs is called Ritalin.

But a cursory glance at the definition of ADHD leads most people to see the obvious problem here: doesn’t every kid in the universe (especially boys) exhibit this kind of behavior at some time or another during their lives?

Predictably, millions of children have been diagnosed with ADHD since it became an official condition, and millions have received drugs like Ritalin. In the last eight years, there has been a particularly sharp spike in the number of prescriptions given for ADHD medications. From 2002 to 2010, the number increased by an incredible 46%. So what explains this spike in diagnosis? Are Facebook, smart phones, and text messaging turning our youth into balls of impulsive energy, bombarded by so much constant stimuli they can no longer focus on the tasks they used to?

No. In fact, a recent study concluded the exact opposite. Kids today are no more inattentive than they were in 1983, before the spike in ADHD diagnoses. They probably have the same attention span as kids in 1883 too. The true source of the spike in prescriptions? Chalk it up to the doctors writing them. Because there is no objective test for ADHD, its diagnosis is largely left to the discretion of physicians. Remember that definition of ADHD from earlier? Turns out physicians tend to see traits of “distractibility, hyperactivity, and impulsive behaviors” in a lot of young kids, especially boys.

The phenomenon is a reflection of the way society handles our psychological problems with pharmalogical solutions. Depressed? Take some Prozac. Can’t sleep? Take Ambien. Can’t focus? Have some Ritalin. We even have pills to help us have sex better.

 Certainly, not all of the doctors who diagnose ADHD are in error. Most of them are probably correct, and ADHD is a very real condition. But it’s clear that it is currently far too easy for kids or teenagers to go to a doctor, say they have trouble doing homework, and get a month supply of a legal amphetamine. And what if it was hard? What if ADHD was under diagnosed instead of over diagnosed? Would our children be much worse off?

There was once a Canadian child named James living in Ontario who was a definite Bart Simpson type in school. Although he got good grades, he often finished his work before his peers and then became a distraction to the class with his antics and erratic behavior. When he got to middle school, one smart teacher found the perfect way to control him: if James could sit on his hands and be quiet for the entire class, she would allow him fifteen minutes at the end of the day to go in the front of the room and do whatever he wanted. James spent all day containing himself, thinking about his routine, until he was finally allowed to let loose in an explosion of goofiness in front of the entire class.

James continued pursuing his passion for doing goofy things in front of an audience. He later established himself as a stand-up comedian and film actor. If it hadn’t been for that inventive teacher’s solution in middle school, James, now popularly known as “Jim” Carrey, might today be working in a Canadian steel mill instead of making the world laugh.

 Maybe being a goofball and a screw-around isn’t always such a bad thing after all.