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Not ‘Til I’ve Had My Coffee: How Caffeine Culture is Affecting Kids

Psychology professor's research examines the effects of caffeine use in adolescents
April 19th, 2018 by 
Alison Bryant Ludden, associate professor of psychology, speaks with students about her research

Everyone drinks coffee — what’s the big deal? When “everyone” includes adolescents, Alison Bryant Ludden, associate professor of psychology, says there’s reason for concern.

Her interest in studying caffeine use in adolescents was piqued while conducting field work in schools.

“One of the things I started to notice was that adolescents were talking about caffeine use in the same way they talk about other substances, like alcohol use, for example — as a way for connecting with peers, a way of self-medicating to help you relax or to help you chill out with your friends. But instead of alcohol,” she explains, “they were talking about caffeine.”

In the past 15 years, with the introduction of energy drinks and the rise of coffee shops, the consumption of caffeine has become more and more popular among adolescents. While the physiological effects of these beverages are worrisome (energy drinks and coffee beverages contain five, sometimes up to 10, times the amount of caffeine found in a can of Coke), Ludden’s focus is on understanding the behavioral choices made around the substance.

Through her focus group interviews and survey research with high school students, Ludden has seen that drinking caffeine is a way for kids to feel cool, connect with their friends and show their independence and social status.

“This expands the notion of caffeine as just being something that adolescents are drinking for the stimulant effects,” she says. “It has a bit of that edginess, of being something that not everyone has access to and of risk-taking if parents were to find out.”

Companies have picked up on this interest and are reinforcing it through advertising specifically targeting kids: Energy drinks like Monster or Rockstar sponsor sporting events that are popular among adolescents, while coffee companies use flavors such as Oreo, Reese’s or chocolate to make their products appealing to a younger clientele.

Ludden also heard students saying they “needed caffeine to get through the day” or “to function.” This language, she explains, is likely picked up at home or from the adults around them, and is particularly concerning.

“During times of change and stress, common in adolescence, kids are establishing patterns of adaptation,” Ludden says. “If they begin to rely upon caffeine as their way of getting through the day, those health behaviors become more established. We also have to worry about kids consuming more and more caffeine without realizing how much they’re consuming, and then forming addictions to caffeine, having withdrawal effects and needing caffeine. In both instances, addiction pathways are being activated.

“If you’re establishing a habit of self-medication and a habit of socializing using substances that are taboo, those patterns suggest that caffeine could be a gateway drug,” she continues. “There is correlational research to suggest that kids who use caffeine are more likely to use other substances. So why is this an issue with adolescents? Because behaviors you form in adolescence stick with you.”

Written by Evangelia Stefanakos ’14 for the Spring 2018 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.

About Holy Cross Magazine

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