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Health

Energy Drinks, Aggression, and the Adolescent Brain

We talked to scientists at the world's first International Energy Drinks Conference.

by David Allegretti
Nov 11 2014, 1:09am

Image via Flickr user Tambako The Jaguar

Global energy drink consumption has doubled since 2006, which is in stark contrast to the dropping sales of soft drinks. And despite all these people getting jacked on guarana, the jury is still out on what effect these drinks actually have on the human body. So a group of scientists got together last week to discuss their research.

They came to the Australian city of Geelong for the First International Energy Drinks Conference, where they could talk free from industry intervention. This meant that nobody with vested interests in the energy drinks market was invited, thus taking further wind from Red Bull's wings.

Disruption of circadian rhythms caused by excessive caffeine consumption, as well as decreased sleep causing impaired mental capacity and school performance were all on the agenda. Not to mention the trend of mixing such energizers with alcohol. To get the full low-down, we spoke to some of the researchers who made the trip.

Peter Miller, Associate Professor of Psychology, Deakin University, Australia

VICE: Hey Peter, in your talk you mentioned a discrepancy in behaviour between tradies and university students when they drink alcohol mixed with energy drinks. Care to elaborate?
Peter: We've got studies that we're in the process of publishing that found a really substantive difference both in terms of the amount of alcohol consumed, the amount of aggression engaged in and attitudes towards violence and aggression – there's also some stuff around masculinity. The tradie sample returned results which were comprehensively different to a university sample, which is not terribly surprising.

Could you give some examples?
When we do a public survey out in the night time economy, 15 percent of uni students report being perpetrators or victims of alcohol related assault. When we talk to the tradies, 35 percent report perpetrating it, while 65 percent report being involved. Not only are these guys heavily involved in aggression but most of them are also very strong so they can cause a lot of damage. So it's a really worrying group that obviously needs intervention.

What are some reasons for this?
What we found was that tradies were higher in what we call trait anger, so in general they're people who show greater anger and when you add alcohol and caffeine, you get both perpetrators and victims.

So tradies are taking out their anger on Saturday nights?
Well look, there are key drivers, and if somebody's angry they're more likely to get into a fight, that's obvious. However, the role of alcohol and the role of energy drinks changes that significantly and so when you throw them all into the picture along with how late at night it is, and whether they have been pre-drinking, these are the key factors.

And energy drinks aren't helping.
The whole point of energy drinks is to keep you going and extending the session so you're more tired which equals grumpy, more impaired, and then more trouble.

Is this problem gender specific?
Gender differences are there but this is a problem across the board. Aggression is not just violence and that's really important to talk about. Verbal aggression is a very real thing and can ruin a night just as much as physical aggression.

Cecile Marczinski, Associate Professor of Psychology, Northern Kentucky University, USA

Youth consumption of energy drinks seems to be a rapidly growing issue, what would you say to a teenager to stop them from drinking the stuff?
Cecile: What I would tell any teenager is that their brain is still in development and still growing until they are about 21 and we know from both animal studies and human studies that when your brain is still growing it's really sensitive to damage, and much more so than in adult brains. There are studies with adolescent rats where you give them alcohol and they show brain damage whereas adults end up being okay. So it's important that if your brain is still developing to not use psychoactive substances and that includes energy drinks and alcohol.

How do you feel about mixing the two together?
Well you're setting the stage for other problems whether it be through brain damage itself, or a dependence problem. I just don't want any teenager to think that just dabbling in substances doesn't have implications for their future.

Sonia Chindamo, psychotherapist & Alberto Terraneo, psychologist, University of Padua, Italy

Your studies focus on youth consumption of energy drinks, is this a big problem in Italy?
Alberto: It's a problem that is growing. It's only a recent development but the rate in which the issue is growing is worrying.

Can you give me some interesting findings from your research?
Sonia: We deal with kids aged 10 to 13. At the age of 10, 12 percent of kids had tried an energy drink. By the age of 13 this figure grows to 63 percent, and of this number, 18 percent are habitual drinkers. This is a big problem. Other findings show 12 percent of 13 year-olds are regular drinkers of alcoholic energy drinks.

You mentioned this was a recent development?
Sonia: Five years ago this was unheard of.

How are we going to stop this?
Alberto: I think any hope lies in the parents more so than the children. Projects aimed at the children themselves have only served to worsen the problem.

Sonia: We have had success in reducing alcohol, tobacco and various other drug use. When it comes to energy drinks however, our work has fallen flat. The problem seems to lie with the parents who don't seem to know much about the products, and often confuse them for sport drinks such as Gatorade.

So what's the answer?
Alberto: I think regulations should be put in place to stop these drinks being sold to under-18s. When you and I drink a Red Bull it's very different to a child drinking it, because their brains are still developing. When it comes to energy drinks, they are still being marketed as something that's almost beneficial, which is just a very dubious claim.

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