Researchers at Teesside University claim that the dramatic rise in Ritalin prescriptions amounts to a "major public health scandal".
Ritalin, a trade name for the amphetamine-like drug methylphenidate, was first used in the US in the 1960s for children with attention deficit disorders. The latest UK figures show prescriptions for children rose from 3,500 in 1993 to 126,500 in 1998. Ritalin's supporters insist it is safe and effective.
But according to a paper in the journal Critical Public ealth, the drug can be addictive and has some similar bio-chemical properties to cocaine. Side effects are said to include heart and chest problems, hallucinations, psychosis and stunted growth. "Children as young as three are being given class B drugs for a condition whose very existence is questioned," said Steve Baldwin, professor of psychology at the University of Teesside and co-author of the study.
He says teachers and educational psychologists are too ready to label children as hyperactive. But Chris Purser, of the National Association of Head Teachers, said: "The decision to prescribe is made by doctors in consultation with parents."