Updated 17 July 2017

Meds may curb risky behaviours in kids with ADHD

A study found that children with ADHD who took medication were less likely to have a substance abuse disorder and also less likely to contract a sexually transmitted disease.

Despite concerns that the stimulants used to treat ADHD might raise the risk of drug abuse, new research suggests the medications are linked with less risky behaviours in teens.

Only an association

The research finds that ADHD medications are "effective in reducing the probability of these events," said study co-author Anna Chorniy, a postdoctoral associate at Princeton University in New Jersey.

Chorniy and her co-author Leah Kitashima, a Ph.D. candidate at Clemson University in South Carolina, examined the Medicaid claims of nearly 150,000 children aged 4 to 19 who were diagnosed with ADHD in South Carolina between 2003 and 2013.

Read: SA has one of the highest prescription rates for ADHD medication

The study results showed that children with ADHD who took medication were 7 percent less likely to have a substance abuse disorder and nearly 4 percent less likely to contract a sexually transmitted disease, compared to those who did not receive medication. They were also 2 percent less likely to be injured.

Also, in a group of about 14,000 teens with ADHD, about 500 fewer teens contracted an STD if they took medication for their disorder, and nearly 1,000 fewer had a substance abuse problem, the researchers found.

Treatment was also linked to a reduction in injuries for the teens, by more than 6,000 cases a year.

However, the study only found an association it could not prove that ADHD medications caused teens to engage in fewer risky behaviours.

Well-documented findings

One expert who reviewed the study said the findings make sense, however.

"Enhancing attention span and reducing impulsive behaviour [through medication] leads to better academic functioning and reduces conduct disturbances and substance abuse – these findings have been well documented," said Dr Victor Fornari. He directs the division of child and adolescent psychiatry at Zucker Hillside Hospital in Glen Oaks, New York.

Read: Side effects of ADHD medication

The Princeton research supports the notion that ADHD drug therapy succeeds in, "reducing risk-taking behaviours," Fornari said.

As of 2011, about 11 percent of American kids aged 4 to 17 have been diagnosed with ADHD, according to the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Patients are typically hyperactive, have trouble paying attention and act impulsively.

Young people with ADHD tend to have problems with self-control and discount the future more heavily than their healthy peers, Chornly said. This makes them more injury-prone and more likely to engage in risky behaviours, such as dangerous driving, substance use and abuse, and unprotected sex.

More research needed

The disorder can be managed with behavioural therapy and stimulants. Almost seven out of 10 children with ADHD have reported taking medication for the condition, the study authors noted.

Read: ADHD medicines help curb criminal behaviour

Some common ADHD treatments are Adderall (amphetamine/dextroamphetamine), Ritalin (methylphenidate), Concerta (methylphenidate), and Dexedrine (dextroamphetamine). These drugs are controlled substances that have potential for abuse or dependence, according to the US Drug Enforcement Administration.

"Many medications have the potential to be misused," Fornari acknowledged. "The prescriber needs to carefully assess the individual child, and educate the child and the family on securing the medication and making certain it is administered as directed."

Because more children are taking ADHD drugs today than a decade ago, Chorniy believes more research is needed regarding the benefits and costs of these medications.

The findings were published online recently in the journal Labour Economics. The work was supported by a grant from the US Social Security Administration to the National Bureau of Economic Research.

Read more:

What is ADHD?

Causes of ADHD

Treating ADHD


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ADHD Expert

Dr Renata Schoeman has been in full-time private practice as a general psychiatrist (child, adolescent and adult psychiatry) since 2008, currently based in Oude Westhof (Bellville). Renata also holds appointments as senior lecturer in Leadership (USB) and as a virtual faculty member of USB Executive Development’s Neuroleadership programme. She serves on the advisory boards of various pharmaceutical companies, as a director of the Psychiatric Management Group (PsychMG) and is the co-convenor of the South African Society of Psychiatrist (SASOP) special interest group for adult ADHD, and co-founder of the Goldilocks and The Bear Foundation ( She is passionate about corporate mental health awareness and uses her neuroscience background to assist leaders in equipping them to become balanced, healthy and dynamic leaders that take their own and their team’s emotional, intellectual, social health and physical needs into account. Renata is academically active and enjoys research and collaborative work, has published in many peer-reviewed journals, and has presented at local and international congresses. She is regularly invited to present at conferences and to engage with the media. During her post-graduate studies, she trained at Harvard, Boston in neurocognition and neuroimaging. Her awards include, amongst others, the Young Minds in Psychiatry award from the American Psychiatric Association, the Discovery Foundation Fellowship award, a Thuthuka award from the NRF, and a MRC Fellowship. She also received the Top MBA student award and the Director’s award from USB for 2015. She was a finalist for the Businesswomen’s Association of South Africa’s Businesswoman of the Year Award for 2016, and received the Excellence in Media Work award from SASOP during 2016.

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