Should Energy Drinks Be Off Limits for Teens?

by Gary Gilles

energydrinksMany young people love energy drinks. In fact, about a third of kids between 10 and 19 years of age consume energy drinks on a regular basis. They go by intriguing names like Monster, Red Bull, Jolt, Burn and Full Throttle to name just a few. Energy drinks are not regulated and children of any age can buy and consume them. So, this means they’re safe, right? Not necessarily.

Before I get to the science, I am inclined to ask why young people are drawn to these energy drinks. Sure, the names sound cool and the packaging draws attention, but is there more to the reason energy drinks are so appealing to teens?

Masterful marketing

Perhaps the most obvious reason is that makers of energy drinks see a fortune waiting to be made and marketers are targeting teens as the primary segment of the population who will provide that windfall. Sales of energy drinks hit $12.5 billion in 2012 and that figure is estimated to increase to 21.5 billion by 2017. Teens are expected to account for the vast majority of these sales. To ensure that teens know which energy drinks are the “coolest,” marketers place ads where teens are known to hang out, such as on their X-boxes or at the X-games, which highlights a variety of extreme sports.

Combating fatigue

The other reason that I believe that teens are drawn to energy drinks, which is less discussed, is the fact that most of them are sleep deprived. According to the National Sleep Foundation, the average teen should get about 9 hours of sleep a night. Their brains and bodies are still developing and they need this amount of sleep to function optimally. Yet, only 8 percent of teens are getting that recommended amount. A recent study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that up to two-thirds of high school students get less than seven hours of sleep per night. That is an ongoing sleep deficit of two hours each night.

Those statistics should be a wake-up call not just for why teens might be turning to energy drinks for functioning capacity but for a whole spectrum of other behaviors that are linked to sleep deprivation, such as depression, weight gain, increased risk of accidents, decreased ability to solve problems, poor judgment and a host of health conditions.

How much caffeine is too much?

But, let’s get back to the main topic of energy drinks and what the science says. Are they really that bad for teens? The main concern is the amount of caffeine in these drinks. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that adolescents limit their caffeine consumption to no more than 100 milligrams per day, roughly the amount in a single cup of coffee. But, current trends toward supersizing also apply to energy drinks. A 24-ounce Monster Energy XXL contains 240 milligrams of caffeine while the 24-ounce Wired X505 packs a spine-tingling 505 milligrams of caffeine. In other words, in just one can of some energy drinks a teen can get up to five times the maximum amount of caffeine in one day.

Add to that other common ingredients, such as guarana, a South American plant that is identical to caffeine but has twice the concentration, and of course, sugar and you have a potent legal cocktail that can wreak havoc on a teen’s developing body and mind. What kind of problems?

Health concerns

For starters, caffeine taken in large doses can cause heart problems, such as irregular cardiac activity, which teens are more susceptible to than adults. Energy drinks have also been linked to an increased risk of depression and substance abuse. Studies have shown that teens that routinely consume caffeine are more likely to be addicted to drugs like cocaine as adults.

Perhaps we should rethink how energy drinks are sold, consumed and marketed to young people. Maybe the trend toward increasing use of energy drinks amount teens is as much about combatting chronic sleep deprivation as marketing and peer pressure. With hundreds of energy-related products in the marketplace, supply will continue to meet and exceed demand. The place for real intervention is for parents to begin discussing their concerns with their teens and offering sound suggestions for consumption that include:

  • No more than one small can of energy drink per day
  • No energy drinks before or during sports events (they are often thought of as hydration-replacing fluids, which they aren’t)
  • They should never be combined with alcohol

And maybe, parents can even start to talk about sleep habits and how to get their teen some additional sleep each night. That might be the best solution of all to the overconsumption of energy drinks.

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: