Many are concerned that Ritalin and similar drugs, which aid concentration in those with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, are chemical straightjackets that prevent children from taking full responsibility for themselves.
But Dr Ilina Singh of King’s College London said she and colleagues found no evidence this was the case, after interviewing scores of children on the drug.
Instead she found children commonly thought it benefited them, by helping clear their heads to make the right decision. It did not “make the decision for them”, she insisted.
One 10-year-old boy told her that Ritalin acted “like a blocker” to his usual disruptive course of action.
“But you still have the choice of going the wrong way,” he said.
Others told Dr Ilina, a reader in bioethics, that it gave them a moment to consider before lashing out at fellow pupils who were trying to wind them up. She said children with ADHD in British schools were routinely taunted.
She said: “Children value the medication because it puts them in a place where they can make good moral decisions, which is exactly what the ethicists are worried about.”
However, she claimed her report, ADHD Voices, was “not a blanket endorsement” of Ritalin – and she said its prescription to solve social problems or improve grades was “a bad idea”.
The number of prescriptions in England for the drug methylphenidate hydrochloride, of which Ritalin is the based known branded version, has risen from 382,000 in 2005 to 715,000 in 2011.
Medical side effects range from loss of appetite, to intense headaches and depression.
Too few ADHD children were offered alternatives to Ritalin such as meditation or cognitive behavioural therapy, a type of counselling, said Dr Singh.
Nor were mothers and fathers offered parenting classes to help them make life more structured and less fractious at home.
Studies that tested the efficacy of these alternatives were lacking because pharmaceutical companies “don’t want to fund them”, she said.
Her research also found that children with ADHD frequently knew little about their condition – with many not knowing what it stood for and some thinking it was even linked to cancer.
Doctors failed to talk to them about, she said, often because they felt they didn’t have the time. Appointments were filled with side-effect checks and weighing them, said the children.
The research was based on interviews with 151 children in the US and the UK, and was part-funded by The Wellcome Trust.