Don’t judge Hong Kong parents for giving ‘smart pills’ to hyperactive children

Christian Chan says the recent furore over the supposed overuse of stimulants to help children with ADHD may be hypocritical, given the realities of the rat race in a winner-takes-all world

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 February, 2017, 2:22pm
UPDATED : Monday, 06 February, 2017, 6:06pm

A Hong Kong psychiatrist recently said in a Facebook post that some primary school children diagnosed with mild symptoms of attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) were using prescribed medication – which are essentially stimulants – to enhance their attention and, in turn, their academic performance. He claimed that this was becoming a problem in some schools.

Parents and others [lamented] that the exam-driven school system was turning our children into drug addicts

Predictably, the post raised a hue and cry, with parents and others lamenting that the exam-driven school system was turning our children into drug addicts. But beyond the potential side effects of the medication, there appears to be something morally wrong here.

Should we blame the parents and teachers for pushing children so hard? Or condemn the psychiatrists and pharmaceutical companies for pushing their drugs? Critics are quick to disparage the Territory-wide System Assessment and its new facade, the Basic Competency Assessment research study, as well as education secretary Eddie Ng Hak-kim. But the issue isn’t so straightforward.

One argument against the use of stimulants is that it creates an unfair advantage for those with access to the drug. Not all families can afford the specialists’ visits and medication. But we should probably work to remove the unfair advantage created by better schools and better tutors, and better access to resources more generally. Why permit one form of advantage and condemn another?

Few of us would openly admit that we think success, usually financial, is the only path to happiness

Another argument is that the medication reduces the need for effort. We should teach our children to value effort and not just achievement, the logic goes. This is a utopian view. We can’t ask the International Olympic Committee to hand out medals to our athletes for their effort, can we?

The third argument is that these medications are “unnatural”, that we should let children grow and learn naturally. But we are okay with milk formula with all sorts of chemicals that allegedly enhance brain development.

The fourth argument is that children are underage, they are not informed consumers. But the problem with this argument is, we are already forcing all sorts of things on them, like vitamins and after-school programmes, allegedly for their own sake.

Computer game helps children with ADHD

We have conditioned ourselves and our children to believe in a certain world view. Few of us would openly admit that we think success, usually financial, is the only path to happiness. But that is exactly what we practise, preach, and celebrate. It is hypocritical of us to wag our fingers at parents for trying everything they can to ensure their children’s success – to the extent that they are willing to push “smart pills” on them – when we too are part of this rat race.

Until we can provide a better alternative to the prevailing world view, I suggest we stop judging these desperate parents.

Christian Chan is assistant professor at the Department of Psychology, the University of Hong Kong