Stressed Singapore students are taking "smart drugs" for better grades

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In a hyper-competitive education system, some Singapore students are popping these drugs to get ahead—with potential dangerous side effects.

'Pressure cooker' doesn't begin to describe the stress faced by our young Singaporeans today. In our famously competitive education system, kids struggle with intense anxiety about doing well — not simply by getting that A but by beating their peers.

In a landscape where all your classmates are getting extra tuition and a bad exam can sink your grade, imagine someone offered you a small white pill that could help you do better. Better grades, better job prospects, better chance of making your parents proud... well, popping it is almost a no-brainer.

Stressed Singapore students are taking

In Singapore, stressed-out students as young as 16 are turning to "smart drugs" for help, reports The Straits Times. But easy as it is for teens to get their hands on these drugs, many of them are not intended for use without a prescription. Taken without supervision, their side-effects can be dangerous. 

Misusing "smart drugs"

"Smart drugs" or nootropics are substances that give our brains a cognitive boost. The effects of such drugs range from enhancing your memory to increasing the firing efficacy of your neurons.

For kids mugging for an exam, these drugs naturally seem like an easy solution. But as they say, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. 

Modafinil, one of the hottest pills in the smart drug market, comes with a whole cocktail of common side effects such as insomnia and anxiety. It's also known to have more serious side effects, including chest pain, hallucinations, and depression. 

Long-term use of "smart drugs" like modafinil could damage the memory, says Dr Peter Morgan of Yale University. And because modafinil functions by increasing your dopamine levels in the same way cocaine does, it can potentially be addictive

Stressed Singapore students are taking

Another dangerous aspect of these drugs is that they are terrifyingly easy to get. While some cognitive enhancers such as methylphenidate are controlled substances in Singapore, others are easily available online.

In fact, local suppliers often cleverly target teens and students. One Singapore-based nootropic supplier's website announces that its "main target audience are the students of Singapore, who are mercilessly subjected to an intense education curriculum."

Its selling point is that its "prices are the lowest in Singapore", with "no risk of interception by the government".  Another advertises, "We deliver to Singapore in 5 working days! For students studying for exams..."

Without quality control, such drugs peddled online may be contaminated, or unsafe for use— there's simply no way you can know. Though "smart drugs" may offer a tempting brain boost, their health risks far outweigh the temporary benefits for your teen.

Tips for parents

If you find out that your hardworking stressed-out older kids are taking "smart drugs", here are some ways you can help them.

1) Empathise with them

One of the greatest fears of any child is disappointing their parents — that's likely one of the reasons why your high-flyers work so hard. So parents, please don't scold them. Instead, get them to tell you about their troubles and offer a sympathetic ear. 

Stressed Singapore students are taking

2) Brew them some alternatives

Odds are good that you just downed a cupful of nootropics this morning: coffee. Caffeine has nootropic properties, and a cup of freshly-brewed tea or coffee can help your teens burn the midnight oil better. 

3) Get them to sleep more

A good night's sleep works like a cognitive enhancer. Studies have shown that sleep helps consolidate our existing memories and facilitates the formation of new ones. 

4) Help them change their study habits

One attraction of drugs like modafinil is their ability to ensure intense concentration for hours on end. This helps students with their last-minute cramming.

With continuous revision throughout the term, your kids will have far less need to turn to "smart drugs". Let them know it's much easier to absorb information in bite-sized chunks, instead of mugging desperately the night before.

5) Put things in perspective for them 

Failure is a terrifying prospect in the Singapore system, but it isn't as absolute as we make it out to be. Make sure your kids know that it's always possible to pick themselves up after a fall.

Show them how that big exam isn't really as big as it seems — and even if it is, it'll never be more important than their health and safety. 

ALSO READ: Is academic stress to blame for high suicide rates among Singaporean children?

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Written by

Jolene Hee