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Young people are losing sleep over energy drinks – but a ban won’t be enough to protect them

There’s no calming the buzz around energy drinks. And it’s not just because of their notoriously high caffeine content.

In the first few weeks of 2024, the UK Labour party proposed including a ban on energy drinks for under-16s in their election manifesto due to concerns about their health impact. Soldiers belonging to the Blues & Royals – part of the king’s ceremonial bodyguards, the Household Cavalry – have also been ordered to stop consuming energy drinks.

Since then, one of Hollywood’s highest paid actors, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has launched a new campaign for his “healthy” energy drink brand, Zoa. No doubt Johnson is hoping to capitalise on the thirst for energy drinks that helped Prime, a brand promoted by popular but controversial YouTube personalities KSI and Logan Paul, achieve cult status among school-aged children, especially boys.

But young people’s consumption of energy drinks isn’t likely to be completely driven by influencer trends. If we want to help young people suffering the health consequences of consuming energy drinks too often, regulation is no doubt part of the picture. But we also need to examine the root causes of young people’s attraction to energy drinks.

Recent evidence suggests that in the UK up to a third of children and young adults consume energy drinks regularly. A 2016 systemic review of energy drink consumption by children and young people found boys are more likely to consume higher amounts than girls.

Energy drinks can contain as much as 505mg of caffeine per serving (equivalent to over fourteen cans of cola), with most containing around 160mg per can. For comparison, a typical 250ml cup of coffee contains about 90-140mg.

Owing to this high caffeine content, the consumption of energy drinks has been linked to poor sleep quality. Research has found that the drinks may also contribute to mental health issues among young people, including anxiety, stress, irritability, and depression. All of which are almost certainly linked to disrupted sleep patterns.

So why are young people so keen on energy drinks? Academic research shows that reasons for consumption include enjoying the taste, as a measure to deal with fatigue and boost mood – and to improve mental and sporting performance.

Another common use for energy drink is as a mixer. Energy drinks are often combined with alcohol and consumed at parties to give an extra buzz. The energy drink counteracts the depressive effect of the alcohol so the drinker feels more alert than they might otherwise.

But this trend also has its dangers. People can end up drinking more alcohol than they realise because its effects are suppressed by the energy drinks.

Branding, marketing and peer influence encourage their use among young people, many of whom are unaware of possible harms of energy drink usage. A UK study conducted in 2022 found that only about half of children knew that energy drinks contained caffeine.

Young people lacking in sleep

Though some academic studies have reported a link between young people’s use of energy drinks and a lack of sleep, the exact relationship between the two isn’t clear.

Numerous factors such as night-time screen use and social media scrolling, academic pressures, and mismatches between school start times and natural sleep-wake rhythms conspire to see many of the world’s young people falling short of recommended sleep targets.

Whetever the cause of young people’s lack of sleep, energy drinks offer a fast and convenient way to counteract the effects of poor sleep on mood and day-to-day functioning. It’s possible, then, that young people can become trapped in vicious cycles of energy drink use, poor sleep, and deteriorating mental health.

Energy drink use has also been linked to attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). However, while some acute effects of energy drinks, such as increased activity, resemble ADHD symptoms, it is currently unclear whether there is any long term increased risk of developing ADHD as a result of energy drink consumption.

Young people with ADHD symptoms might also be more likely to use energy drinks as a form of “self-medication” or because they enjoy the feeling or lower impulse control. As young people with ADHD are already more likely to experience sleep difficulties, they might also be an especially vulnerable group for whom energy drink use could exacerbate pre-existing sleep issues.

Bans and regulation are only part of the answer

In light of the accumulating evidence for the harms of energy drinks, several countries have started to regulate or outright ban their sale minors. In Lithuania and Turkey, for example, sales of energy drinks to under 18s is not allowed.

In the UK, a 2018 social media campaign spearheaded by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver led to many supermarkets implementing a voluntary ban on sales to under-16s. The following year, the UK government said they would ban energy drinks for under-16s in England. But the ban has not been implemented.

Bans and regulation can help to change behaviour, but they are usually not enough on their own. Equipping young people with the knowledge and skills to manage their sleep and energy cycles will play a crucial role in tackling the global shortage of sleep among young people.

Most crucial of all, we need to listen to young people and understand their motivations for using energy drinks so that we can design effective strategies to support them to reduce their consumption.

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