Kids, Coffee and Caffeine

Hillsborough Middle School in New Jersey made headlines at the start of the summer when the school banned energy drinks from the campus.

Joe Trybulski said that the decision wasn’t a difficult one. “Being hopped up on caffeine can be a distraction to your learning,” he said.

Energy drinks like Red Bull and Spike Shooter and Amp are popular with kids, even kids as young as 10 or 12 because they’re super-sweet and they give you a lift. They’re advertised by sports figures – and not just the typical football and basketball players. The advertising for these drinks plays to the edgier crowd with well-known names in extreme sports like snowboarding and extreme skateboarding and cross country biking.

The energy drink industry denies that they market directly to children. They claim that $2-$4 cost per can makes energy drinks too expensive for kids, and they’re aimed at adults. Not only that, they counter, most energy drinks have less caffeine than coffee.

“Are you going to start carding kids at coffee houses and candy shops?” asked one beverage industry executive.

“We can’t imagine why a school would ban Red Bull from campus,” says another, a spokewoman for Red Bull.

For comparison’s sake, a cup of coffee contains about 95 milligrams of caffeine. An 8.3 ounce can of Red Bull contains 75 milligrams, more than twice the amount of caffeine in a 12 ounce can of Coca Cola.

It’s interesting to note that not that long ago, coffee was considered strictly an adult drink. Even in my Italian family, where no one thought twice about pouring a small glass of wine for children at dinner, coffee was reserved for the adults. After dinner espresso was an adult only treat. Coffee was rumored to stunt growth and be dangerous for children.

Times have changed, and now dietitians say that there’s ‘no clear proof’ that energy drinks and caffeine harm children, but it’s definite that caffeine tends to affect children more than adults. Too much caffeine is a far smaller amount for a 110 pound 12 year old boy than it is for a 175 pound adult man. And children, say health professionals, get into a harmful cycle with energy drinks when they drink them in the morning to ‘wake up’ after having trouble falling asleep the night before.

And it isn’t just energy drinks. At the start of the last school year, Burncoat High School and South Community High School in Worcester, Massachusetts banned carry-in coffee for students in the high schools. Kids were coming in to school with cups of coffee and cappuccino from the local Dunkin Donuts, Starbucks and Honey Dew donuts, and sipping them through their first class. It was a distraction, teachers said, and led to kids ‘crashing’ later in the morning.

One school in Colorado took a more measured approach to the problem. When the convenience store across the street started selling Spike Shooters, they noticed an alarming increase in kids reporting to the nurse’s office complaining about accelerated heart rates, dizziness and anxiety. The school banned the energy drinks on campus, sent notes home to parents, and convinced the store to stop pushing the energy drinks and caffeine to the kids. The concerted home-school-community effort did the trick. The nurses’ visits slipped back to normal – even on days when there were tests scheduled.