Harried kids turning to energy drinks for a needed boost

Health drinks line a shelf in a convenience store in Tokyo. Photo: WIKIPEDIA

"One day I was cleaning my daughter's room when I saw an empty can with a colorful design on her desk," the mother of a girl in the 6th grade tells Shukan Post (July 13). "When I asked her what it was, she replied 'It's an energy drink. All the kids drink it. It sharpens your mind and helps you get through studies.'"

"It seems she buys it on her way home from juku (cram school) and drinks it in her room. I was surprised."

Beverages known as "energy drinks" generally contain caffeine and are designed to help avoid drowsiness. They first began appearing on store shelves in Japan from around the middle of the last decade, and have become popular among businessmen and athletes.

"Professor Shingo Noi of Nippon Sport Science University conducted a survey of the nutritional habits of Japanese students in elementary, middle and high schools," said Chika Akiyama, a journalist who has been covering this phenomena. "From responses by 1,096 students, 24.4% of junior high school students and 48.4% of high school students gave positive replies to 'I habitually consume energy drinks while at school.' While the figures for elementary school students were fairly low, some teachers have confirmed that they've seen students drinking them, too. One girl in a Tokyo junior high school was found to consume from two to four cans a day. When cautioned by her teacher to avoid excess, she replied, 'I'm hopeless without it.'"

Hisashi Kurihara, a former professor at Tokyo University of Social Welfare, explained the source of the drinks' popularity.

"Whether it's attending cram schools or sports, elementary school kids are constantly exhorted to excel by their parents," Kurihara said. "They're under a heavy load. Even if they think caffeine will give them a boost or banish drowsiness, they don't much like coffee or tea due to the bitterness. Energy drinks also have a lot of sugar, making them taste sweet, and the packaging design is catchy, so I suppose for them, it's just like drinking juice."

According to the mother quoted in the first paragraph, her daughter attends juku four evenings a week, returning home after 10:30 p.m. Afterwards she still has to do homework, staying up past midnight.

"It's a really demanding life for a 12-year-old," she remarks. "It surprised me at first, but I suppose she drinks them because they give her a lift."

Some parents are said to even encourage their children to imbibe the drinks, convinced the benefits outweigh the disadvantages.

The drinks are regarded as a type of nutritional supplement, which differentiates them from the small bottles of vitamin tonic beverages known in Japanese as dorinku-zai, which under the former law were classified as pharmaceutical products. The energy drinks are classified as soft drinks and producers are not authorized to make specific claims toward their efficacy. They are sold at convenience stores and others from the same racks as bottled tea or juice.

A market survey last year found that while the dorinku-zai market shrank by about 20% over the previous 10 years, to 172.3 billion yen, overall sales of energy drinks doubled over the same period, reaching 81.4 billion yen.

The aforementioned Kurihara warns, "Large quantities of caffeine, for children whose brains are in the process of developing, can adversely affect the nervous system, possibly raising the risk of hallucinations, delusions or seizures. Naturally elementary school children should avoid these drinks, and that goes for middle school and high school students as well."  

In February of this year, The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) issued a recommendation that energy drinks not target children or adolescents.

A spokesperson for Red Bull Japan gave this comment to Shukan Post: "A 250ml can of Red Bull energy drink contains 80 milligrams of caffeine, or about the same quantity as coffee. As children are smaller and should refrain from drinking the same amount as adults, our company do not market the product to children."

At present, Japan has are no regulations or restrictions on sales of energy drinks, but an official at Food Safety Standards and Evaluation Division of the Health, Labour and Welfare Ministry confirmed they are aware of the problem and "are considering measures."

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they are aware of the problem and "are considering measures."

I wish I had 5 yen for every time I've heard a similar comment from a Japanese government official.

7 ( +7 / -0 )

There is something wrong if a twelve-year-old has to have a strong caffeine drink on an ordinary day at 10:30pm just to get by. That is not a healthy way to raise a child.

Caffeine is a stimulant and clearly works. There was a story last year about a young boy in the US who died from seizures after having an energy drink and a Starbucks coffee, so its not safe for everyone.

Many medical studies state that caffeine improves performance in endurance sports, which creates a dilemma for parents of children doing them. The boost can be as large as 2 or 3%, easily enough to make a difference between winning and losing. There is no guarantee that your child's rivals are not using it.

5 ( +5 / -0 )

I was basically addicted to caffeine pills (NoDoz) in my senior year of high school. It worked and I got into a top university and am still alive to tell the tales...

-2 ( +2 / -4 )

Schoolchildren should be in bed at 10:30 pm, not drinking caffeine in order to stay awake past midnight. The mother in the story should reduce the time spent at juku, preferably to zero.

6 ( +6 / -0 )

and somehow they manage to have the world's longest life expectancy. maybe stress and hard work are part of a healthy lifestyle.

-3 ( +2 / -5 )

According to the mother quoted in the first paragraph, her daughter attends juku four evenings a week, returning home after 10:30 p.m. Afterwards she still has to do homework, staying up past midnight

You push your 12 year old child in to this routine and then criticise the energy drinks.

I'm no fan of energy drinks and they should definitely be regulated and restricted from easy access by children. But let's look at why this poor child drinks them habitually first.

"It surprised me at first, but I suppose she drinks them because they give her a lift."

I am hoping beyond hope that the real quote has been somewhat lost in translation and this mother is not, as the quote implies, allowing the habit to continue.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

@RareReason: really no different than coffee. my son studied his ballz off to get into a good university. caffeine was a useful tool.

-3 ( +1 / -4 )

@Reckless: I suppose its similar but there are two differences to point out...

1) coffee is not naturally as sweet and tasty to kids. Sure it can be loaded up with sugar... But as its usually made at home its quite easy for you as a parent to notice the amount of coffee and sugar disappearing fast. Less easy with energy drinks. Very difficult to gauge the amount of caffeine and sugars in these drinks compared to n spoons of coffee and n spoons of sugar.

2) applying for uni implies your son was 16 to 18 at this time? Still young but a bit more hardy. Significantly more developed than a 12 year old.

I get your point... But I think significant enough a difference in age and ease of access.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

@RareReason: good points especially the fact that energy drinks appear to be marketed as colorful and fun for younger and younger kids unlike coffee. My son had very little pocket money anways to buy expensive energy drinks, easier just to make a pot of coffee for free in the kitchen.

-2 ( +0 / -2 )

It really isn't necessary to put adolescents under so much pressure to study. Studying all day long, getting home after 2230 and still having to do homework wtf!?

2 ( +2 / -0 )

ok... so this is how they raise the future company slaves. At an early age, they re already training todo long hours of work with few hours of sleep.

Im no scientist or smart guru, but that is cleary a Parental Slavery.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

A “Rockstar” energy drink does the trick for me once in a while, but they were scarce in Japan.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

We are aware that thousands die every year from PASSIVE SMOKING and will try to ban it.NOT!

In the mean time, how in the world are they going to even think about trying to stop kids buying these drink when they can't even bother to stop kids PASSIVE smoking in every single place that serves food.

While kids shouldn't be drinking certain energy drinks like monster or red bull, I'd rather the banned passive smoking which every single kid in Japan has to put up with.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

These kids are going to stroke out if they keep drinking those things, and the nation as a whole will suffer.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

I work evening shift in Japan, my commute is 4 hours return daily and I'm in a fairly active job.

My office supplies free energy drinks and snacks full of sugar and energy to keep the workers active and awake 24/7.

I refuse to drink the energy drinks as I know how bad they are for you on a regular basis. Sometimes I will have 1 maybe a week... but I cannot imagine a kid having 1 daily!

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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