Digital Anthropology

#Adderall: Constructions of Prescription Drug Use in Digital Spaces

This study investigated the way in which individuals use visual forms of social media to promote ideologies and experiences with prescription stimulants. Previous studies indicate that the prominence of drug-related content published in social media sites, such as Twitter, has resulted in the normalization of illicit drug behaviors in real life (Hanson et al. 2013). Alternatively, this project focused on representations of drug use on Instagram, a social media application dedicated to online photo sharing. Between August and December of 2013, over 1,100 images with the hashtag #adderall were collected and coded according to image content, and associated language content (captions and hashtags). Results showed that experiences with prescription stimulants ranged from medical treatments, to illicit use, to cognitive enhancement. The data indicated that individuals were also using social media as a way to connect with others to both sell and procure prescription stimulants illicitly. Thus, this study supports the claim that social media both normalizes illicit drug use as well as de-stigmatizes other legal forms of use. It also suggests that Instagram is an important environment to research digital drug dealing culture in the future.

This project was conducted by a team of undergraduate research assistants under the mentorship of Tazin Karim Daniels. We are currently working on two articles based on this work:

Daniels, Tazin Karim, Erin Mobley and Alex Chavez. 2015. #Adderall: Constructions of Prescription Drug Use in Digital Spaces. Journal of Medical Internet Research. (In progress)

Daniels, Tazin Karim, Justin Kenton and Shivani Pandya. 2015. Selling Study Drugs: Direct-to-Consumer Advertising of Cognitive Enhancing Drugs. Social Science & Medicine. (In progress)

Works Cited:

Hanson CL, Burton SH, Giraud-Carrier C, West JH, Barnes MD, Hansen B. Tweaking and Tweeting: Exploring Twitter for Nonmedical Use of a Psychostimulant Drug (Adderall) Among College Students. J Med Internet Res 2013;15(4):e62 URL:

Cultural Heritage Informatics Fellowship 2012-2013


Adderall is a prescription stimulant designed to treat the symptoms of Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) – a condition affecting 12% of children and 5% of adults in the U.S. In 2010, Americans spent nearly $7 billion dollars on prescription treatments for this disorder, which is more than double that spent in 2004. With so many pills in circulation today, it is not surprising that some have made their way into the hands of people without prescriptions. Reports show that nonmedical Adderall use has become prevalent among a variety of individuals including housewives, professional football players and college students looking to increase productivity and manage their high-stress lives.

Anthropologists have referred to the unprecedented incorporation of prescription drugs like Adderall into daily life as “pharmaceuticalization” – a complex process that is reshaping the way we understand our health, bodies, relationships, and identities. One way to examine this process systematically is to look at the “social life” of the drug itself. Geest and Whyte (1996:153) explain how pharmaceuticals can be studied biographically:

“From production, marketing, and prescription to distribution, purchasing, consumption, and finally their efficacy… Each phase has its own particular context, actors, and transactions and is characterized by different sets of values and ideas”.

Building on this model, this project examines an understudied dimension of Adderall’s social life – its “digital life”. On average, Americans spend nearly two hours a day on social media sites like Twitter, Instagram and YouTube which have given them a new way to connect with others and share their ideas and experiences. Accordingly, participation in social media should be understood and studied as an extension of the lived human experience. In particular, this project highlights the various ways Americans are actively constructing the virtual image of Adderall as a treatment for ADHD, a recreational party drug, and as a cognitive enhancer. I accomplish this by presenting and analyzing three forms of social media produced around Adderall: linguistic (Twitter), photographic (Instagram), and multimedia (YouTube).

twitter transparent

Twitter is an online micro-blogging site where users can instantly upload and share 140-character narratives called “tweets” on any topic imaginable. To date there has been a phenomenal amount of social science research conducted on the cultural significance of digital micro-blogging as a form of communication, ideological expression, and ultimately, public identity construction. Of particular interest to this project is understanding how people understand and leverage the public nature of Twitter when mentioning controversial topic such as Adderall use.


“Public/Private Space”

Are tweets about Adderall just passing thoughts, private messages between peers… or are they meant to be broadcast to a broader audience? To explore this question, I have included two live streams on this section of the project site. Both streams were created using the embeddable Twitter Widget. The first is a search query of the hashtag #adderall. The fact that the user manually categorized their tweets through the hashtag function suggests that they want to somehow publicize their micro-narrative and associate it with their digital identity. The second is a search query of just the term “adderall” without the hashtag. The postulation here is that although they are sharing their tweet with their own follower base, they aren’t necessarily intending their micro-narrative to be discoverable by the entire world. By viewing these streams side by side, one can quickly gauge the frequency of these tweets, as well as the language being used to talk about Adderall online.




instagram transparentInstagram is an online photo-sharing application that allows users to snap a picture with their smartphones and upload it to a variety of social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and Flickr. Although it was launched less than three years ago, there are currently over 100 million active users of the app. One of the most appealing features of Instagram is a user’s ability to quickly edit photos and add filters to make any picture seem like a professionally shot photograph. A icecream sundae suddenly becomes a work of art. Similarly, a broken Adderall pill, a self-portrait of a stressed college student, or a new prescription from a doctor holds some intrinsic aesthetic value, waiting to be transformed and shared with the world. Given that I have not personally interviewed any of these contributors to the #adderall collection, I can only speculate their intentions and the kind of messages they are trying to convey with these images. Yet by looking at them as a collection, one can start to see how people are simultaneously interpreting the idea of Adderall in their own lives and actively shaping the virtual life of the drug itself through Instagram.

“Images of Adderall”

Collectively, a user’s stream of pictures fundamentally shapes their own virtual identity on Instagram. Much like other sites, Instagram users can follow each other – making their pictures a form of social capital. It is entirely possible that people see #adderall as a trendy hashtag that would attract the attention a particular kind of follower. In this way, #adderall is no longer just about representing the drug, but some kind of cultural value or ideology that the term “adderall” invokes. Above is a live feed of images created with Widget.stagram with the hashtag #adderall. This dynamic visualization is intended to illustrate how people are actively constructing the virtual life of Adderall in the moment. It also illustrates the vast range of images people are associating with the drug.

“A Snapshot of Finals Week”

To date, there are almost 14,000 images labeled with the hashtag #adderall. Unfortunately, I have not been able to identify a program that is able to quickly and effectively harvest and analyze Instagrams based on hashtags. This means this laborious work needs to be done manually. For the purposes of this project, I used the same time frame of finals week for spring semester at Michigan State University (April 27, 2013 – May 2, 2013) to see how people were visually representing their thoughts and experiences with Adderall online. During this time period, over 130 photos were harvested and are presented as a collage created through PhotoJ.




youtube transparentYouTube is an online video sharing website created in 2005 where registered users can upload a range of multimedia content including but not limited to alternative news media, comedy sketch videos, how to video tutorials, and independently produced webisodes. By far, one of the most popular forms of multimedia on YouTube is the music video. While mainstream artists post some of their own professionally produced content, YouTube has also become a platform for a new artist to be discovered, or even just an outlet for someone to share a moment of musical creativity or expression with the world.

“Adderall Songs”

Music has been a medium for creating and preserving human culture for thousands of years. It can be an audible representation of how an individual or society recollects a certain moment in history. It can also be used to connect with others who share the same sentiments or are going through similar experiences. Accordingly, more and more people are using this medium to share their attitudes and experiences with drugs – including Adderall. To date, there are literally dozens of music videos on YouTube dedicated to Adderall. Genres range from mainstream hip-hop, to comedy, to even country – each highlighting the lighter and darker sides of the drug.

A music video is a complex piece of data to analyze – each one has visual, audio, and linguistic components. But together as a timeline, this collection of videos serves as a data set which illustrates the range, frequency and popularity of these videos over a given time period. The associated visualization was created with TimeLine.Verite.Co, an open-source tool which allows users to create interactive timelines with a clean user interface. After a conducting a YouTube search for the term “Adderall”, I generated a Google spreadsheet which included meta data on each video such as the upload date, genre, number of videos, as well as a hyperlink to the video itself. The TimeLine tool pulled information from this spreadsheet and provided me with an embed code to include on the project website.