Friday, July 8, 2011

The Problem with Energy Drinks

Remember that extra special caffeine pill episode of Saved by the Bell? Jessie Spano was having a hard time keeping up with school and being in a new girl band, so she turned to caffeine pills. Her one pill quickly turned into a habit and she ended up sobbing in Zack's arms while Screech performed her part in the girl band's premiere performance. Caffeine addiction has come a long way.

I was aware of caffeine pills while I was in school, but I never tried them. I'd heard of people popping a pill to stay up all night to finish projects or essays. The pills were a way not let your school work get in the way of your fun. They were not meant to be a habit. They were a bandage to cover the fact that you procrastinated too much and now you have to buckle down and work. I'm not sure how accurate Jessie Spano's addiction story is because I never remembered any of my friends in high school or college desperately shoving tiny red pills in their mouth just to get through the day.

The problem is, though, that caffeine is an addictive substance. Your body gets used to having it. When you don't have it, your body will let you know. I won't claim to be a saint in this. I love coffee and drink a cup every morning. I've lived without caffeine in my life, but I still like the taste of coffee. One cup of coffee a day isn't the problem. What my students are putting into their bodies every day is the problem.

Yes, one of them is really called "Cocaine"
Caffeine is no longer the way to alleviate your procrastination problems. Now caffeine is a poor substitute for sleep. A daily poor substitute for sleep. Every morning my students come to visit me and every morning they are carrying their energy drinks. It started with Red Bull's popularity while I was in college. From there, a whole hoard of jitter-inducing beverages have been created. And now they are huge. Red Bull started with a can with just over 8oz. Now you can get a Full Throttle with 16oz of pure energy packing in 200 milligrams of caffeine. And a surprising number of my students will drink two or three of those cans a day.

What does it do to kids? About what you'd expect. They are wired after drinking these sugary concoctions. They are sometimes so hyped up on caffeine that they are practically shaking from the need to move around. And that's immediately after drinking it. Five hours later, in the last period of the day, they're crashed. Where they were bouncing around in first period, they can't barely keep their head up and struggle to get through the work by the last period. 

In the long term, they need more caffeine to get to that wired reaction. It turns into needing the caffeine just to function rather than needing the caffeine as a pick me up. Trying to quit the caffeine makes them irritable and barely able to complete classwork.

Energy drinks aren't the only thing to blame. Even kids drinking old fashioned sodas are likely to fall into the caffeine trap. A large number of our kids come to school with a Big Gulp (32oz) or a Double Big Gulp (64oz) of Coca-Cola, Mountain Dew or any other caffeinated soda. Putting aside the freakish amount of calories, what once was a moderately caffeinated beverage is now four or eight times a normal serving. And they drink the whole thing. Kids are also really fond of ice coffee treats like Starbucks' Frappucinos, which pack a ton of calories in addition to the caffeine. 

Caffeine, used moderately, doesn't have to be horrible. The problem is that the majority of students are not using caffeine moderately. If it sounds like I'm talking about a drug, it's because I essentially am. While Jessie Spano's caffeine pill driven freak out may seem like hilariously bad 90s television, the fact is that too much caffeine can have consequences. And removing caffeine from your life can be difficult. I don't know how to fix it, but if I were in charge, the first thing I would do is stop companies from marketing these products to children. The next step is to continue to educate my students about the effects of caffeine and encourage them to make better nutritional choices.


  1. I would love to see a ban on soda/ energy drink machines in schools.

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