New research: Daily-life-based study of college students’ Rx stimulant misuse finds opportunities to interrupt behavior

Students study in the Law Building library at the University of Wisconsin-Madison during autumn on Nov. 14, 2013. (Photo by Jeff Miller/UW-Madison)

Students study in the Law Building library at the University of Wisconsin-Madison during autumn on Nov. 14, 2013. (Photo by Jeff Miller/UW-Madison)

A new study in the Journal of American College Health uses real-time self-reports from college student participants to learn about their prescription stimulant misuse triggers and behaviors in their everyday lives. Where most studies in this area collect information retrospectively, Dr. Lauren Papp and graduate student Alexandra Barringer employed “ecological momentary assessment” (EMA) methodology to collect information from college students as they went about their daily lives to better understand when and where students are at the greatest risk for stimulant misuse before the behavior occurs. Their findings revealed that real-time academic events (such as doing homework or preparing for an exam) immediately preceded stimulant misuse in daily life and campus study spaces (such as libraries and classrooms) were common sites of misuse occurrence. Final exam periods were particularly high-risk times for misuse. 

“While it may seem obvious that students are likelier to abuse stimulants during high-stress times like finals periods, our study is unique in that it captured comprehensive information before the behavior occurred about where and when misuse happened alongside academic and other contextual information,” says first author Alexandra Barringer, a PhD student in Human Development and Family Studies. “This gave us a more nuanced and complete picture of the factors at work in students’ moment-to-moment decisions around these drugs.”

EMA methods have been used to study college students’ tobacco, alcohol, and cannabis misuse behavior, as well as stimulant misuse retrospectively. Stimulant misuse has been linked to lower student GPAs and can hold serious implications for users’ health, including increased potential for addiction and more emergency room visits.

Coauthor Dr. Lauren Papp, Associate Dean for Research in the School of Human Ecology and the Vaughan Bascom Professor in Women, Family, and Community, adds, “What we hope is that by identifying the immediate and contextual academic triggers of prescription stimulant misuse in students’ real-world and daily life environments, we can contribute translational or practical information that supports prevention and intervention efforts on college campuses—and ultimately, that advisors, faculty, and residential counselors who are regularly engaging with students can recognize and rout such behaviors at their origins.”

The paper, “Academic factors associated with college students’ prescription stimulant misuse in daily life: An ecological analysis of multiple levels,” is available in the Journal of American College Health. View a preprint here

With questions, or learn more about the authors’ work, see the authors’ contact pages: Alexandra Barringer and Dr. Lauren Papp. Their study was supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse of the National Institutes of Health under Award Number R01DA042093.

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