The Mega Monster in the classroom

Caffeine and sugar are consuming our young people

Energy drinks are a leading source of caffeine and sugar.

Jimmy is a typical high school student. On a daily basis, he would come to my first period English class tired and armed with a 24-ounce Mega Monster energy drink, which weighs in at 240 milligrams of caffeine and a whopping 81 grams of sugar.

One morning Jimmy supplemented his Mega Monster with a handful of Swedish Fish candies from a classmate. That probably boosted his sugar total to an even 90 grams, more than three times the maximum number the American Heart Association recommends teenagers limit themselves to for an entire day.

On a positive note, Swedish Fish are caffeine free.

Jimmy is just one example of what I see, from my perspective as a high school teacher, as the latest development in an ever-growing health concern, if not crisis.

Coffee-based drinks are gaining popularity among teens.

While not all high school students carry Mega Monster cans in their backpacks, an increasing number do start the day with coffee, usually iced or frozen coffee, and in most cases their frosty brews come loaded with sugar in various forms.

Consider one of the latest sweet concoctions Dunkin’ Donuts is promoting, the Hershey’s Cookies ’N’ Cream Swirl Frozen Coffee. This absolutely is a drink aimed at the youth market, and it packs a considerable sugar, calorie, and caffeine wallop.

According to the Dunkin’ Donuts website, a large version — the size most teens would purchase — with whole milk tallies 930 calories, 393 mg caffeine, and a 185 grams of sugar, levels that crush Jimmy’s Mega Monster. To put it in perspective, the Hershey’s Cookies ’N’ cream exceeds the recommended daily caffeine limit by nearly 300 mg and soars more than seven times above the recommendation on daily sugar consumption for teens.

These same caffeine-and-sugar-hooked teens also consume digital media in vast amounts 24/7, which means many, if not most of them, are sacrificing sleep for Snapchat and various other social networking pursuits. And, naturally, teens who wake up exhausted are likely to stop at the nearest Dunkin’ Donuts or Starbucks before school for a dose of something that will get them through the school day. Or, like Jimmy, they might elect to purchase an energy drink at the local convenience store. Sometimes, they do both, setting up the potential for a dose of caffeine and sugar that could launch the average teen to Mars and beyond before the inevitable crash — typically, a crash that occurs long before the school day ends.

Taken together — the sleep deprivation and over consumption of sugar and caffeine — the result is a vicious cycle that is greatly compromising the health and intellectual development of today’s high school students and setting them up for even more dire physical and mental problems in the years to come. And I don’t see this trend stopping anytime soon. In fact, I see the reverse happening.

There’s a reason Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts have put an emphasis on sugar-laden iced, cold and frozen coffee in recent years. This is the stuff today’s teenagers were raised on. In an article in Daily Coffee News, writer Nick Brown quotes National Coffee Association president and CEO Bill Murray as saying that “more of us are drinking coffee, and younger consumers appear to be leading the charge.”

An article in U.S. News Report further confirms this trend, stating that teenagers as well younger children, including 1-year-olds, are consuming record levels of caffeine. While soda remains the leading source, writer Jill Castle added that “coffee-based” beverages and energy drinks are becoming a growing contributor to the caffeine consumption. She goes on to write that teenagers who drink caffeine could be setting themselves up for “jitteriness, nervousness … and problems sleeping and concentrating.”

But the sugar impact might be just as detrimental.

The American Heart Association states that “some studies have linked high-sugar diets to numerous health issues, including obesity, increased risks for high blood pressure, high triglyceride levels, and other risk factors for heart disease and stroke.”

This is a stark contrast to the high school world I remember 40 years ago. I cannot recall a single friend or classmate who drank coffee. And while soda consumption was common, the teenagers of my era did not have nearly the wealth of caffeine and sugar-packed options that beverage companies and fast-food restaurants market at young people today.

So, yeah, I worry. I worry every time I see a student like Jimmy coming into my classroom with a Mega Monster. I worry that sugar and caffeine will devour us.

Writing is what I do. I started as a journalist, working at a daily newspaper in Maine for 20 years, and now I’m an English teacher, specializing in writing.

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