Monthly Archives: October 2011

Energy drinks and kids: what parents need to know

Teens and energy drinks

Red Bull. Monster. Full Throttle. Hype. Wired. Spike Shooter. The brand names of popular energy drinks clearly suggest the youth market (12-35 years, according to industry figures) that has embraced them. But new warnings from Health Canada and the Canadian Medical Association may have parents confused about what specific dangers these caffeine and sugar-laden drinks pose for their kids.

What’s the story with energy drinks? Teens, athletes and young adults seek out these drinks to give them an energy boost for a variety of reasons: a big game, sleep deprivations, staying up all night to study or party. Celebrities have given them an important pop culture cachet and club-goers willingly pay highly inflated prices for the drinks.

On their own, energy drinks can be unhealthy for teens for  a variety of reasons. The amounts of caffeine, while variable from brand to brand, are always higher than what you’d find in a conventional can of cola.  A 12 oz. can of Coke or Pepsi has 34-38 mg of caffeine, while a cup of brewed coffee has between 80 and 100 mg of caffeine.  A 12 oz. can of Red Bull has 116 mg. Other brands contain between 120 mg (Monster), 258 mg (Wired X344) and a staggering 428 mg (Spike Shooter).

Since the drinks are served cold, they are often consumed much more quickly than a hot cup of coffee, and the shooter formats are downed in a single gulp, forcing the body to process these stimulants very quickly (along with sugar, amino acids and herbal stimulants like taurine, guarana and gingko). Since teens are less likely to realize the potent effects of the drinks, they may drink or 4 or 5 in a short time.

Not too surprisingly, that can prove very dangerous. Energy drinks have been linked to seizures, heart palpitations, strokes and even sudden death. We also know that most of these drinks are consumed in the evening and are thus likely to affect sleep quality. Since many teens already deal with chronic sleep deprivation, this is a real concern.

If they are risky on their own, then energy drinks can prove even more deadly when combined with alcohol. Sometimes called “hair of the dog,” the cocktail combinations are intended to stave off the depressant effects of alcohol with the stimulating properties of the caffeine and sugar.

One clinical research study found that the combination can make users feel less drunk (and thus more likely to over-consume) but had the same impairment of motor coordination and visual reaction time. Another study of university students found that those who regularly mixed energy drinks and alcohol got drunk twice as often as those who just stuck  to alcohol and were far more likely to be injured and require medical treatment while drinking.

Just as frightening, energy drink mixers more likely to be victims or perpetrators of aggressive sexual behaviours, even after researchers controlled for the amount of alcohol consumed.  Another researcher found that energy drinks were highly linked to risk-taking among teens, what she called “toxic jock behavior.” Kathleen E. Miller, Ph.D. found that:

Frequent energy drink consumers (six or more days a month), according to Miller’s findings,  were approximately three times as likely than less-frequent energy drink consumers or non-consumers to have smoked cigarettes, abused prescription drugs and been in a serious physical fight in the year prior to the survey.  They reported drinking alcohol, having alcohol-related problems and using marijuana about twice as often as non-consumers. They were also more likely to engage in other forms of risk-taking, including unsafe sex, not using a seatbelt, participating in an extreme sport and doing something dangerous on a dare.

Health Canada’s recommendations are for teens to consume no more than 2.5 mg per kilogram of body weight. Older and heavier adolescents can follow adult recommendations, which are for no more than 400 mg of caffeine a day. It’s own expert panel has recommended that energy drinks be removed from grocery and convenience store shelves and sold under the supervision of pharmacists.

However the newest restrictions by Health Canada ignore their own best advice. Instead, energy drinks sold in Canada cannot have more than 180 mg of caffeine in a single serve container, equivalent to about 5 355 ml cans of Pepsi. It’s also more than double the recommended amount of caffeine for kids 10-12 years old. These regulations also exclude the highly concentrated “energy shots” sold at convenience stores and gas stations.

No one is happy about these watered-down health measures. Child safety and medical experts believe they don’t go far enough to protect teens.

In the meantime, parents need to understand the risks these drinks pose to their kids. Discuss your concerns with your kids, and explain the medical reasons for limiting their consumption. It’s also important to explain why it’s not safe to consume them with alcohol. It’s very possible your teens have no idea that the drinks, which look completely harmless on the shelves next to regular colas, could be so dangerous.

Race, class, gender, beauty: American Girl’s not-so-hidden messages for little girls

All 3 of my daughters have owned — and loved — American Girl dolls thanks to generous gifts from family members over the years. Despite the obvious pleasure they’ve taken in these dolls, I’ve long had conflicting feelings about these very expensive playthings.

On the one hand, I really liked them having dolls modelled on nine-year-old girls rather than heavily made-up, impossibly skinny teenage girls. I enjoyed the racial diversity represented in their range (however imperfect). And given the voracious readers I was dealing with, I especially liked the wonderful series of chapter books from the American Girl Library detailing each character’s adventures in different historical time periods.

On the other hand, I loathed the incredible expense involved and the implied conspicuous consumption. The dolls’ clothes cost more than I usually spent on my own kids’ outfits. The Manhattan store we visited on trips to see family was a mobbed temple of rampant, thoughtless consumerism. When we made the mistake of going down there one Easter weekend several years ago, I feared my children would be literally trampled by hordes of frantic mothers stampeding the cash register to fork over $100 for their kids’ dolls. I cringed at the sight of all the little girls dressed in identical outfits to their dolls, mentally calculating the astronomical expense of each cheaply made outfit.

And I succumbed to their excitement and the euphoria.

On more than one occasion.

When we tried out the brunch at the store’s restaurant (complete with tiny seats and dishes for the dolls), my husband was disgusted to learn there was no men’s washroom easily accessible (“Don’t little girls have dads?” he wondered aloud).

I always felt a bit guilty about not buying my girls Canadian versions of the AG dolls (called Maplelea dolls), but they just weren’t nearly as cute (with the notable exception of Saila, their brand new Inuit doll, who is really quite lovely).

We also noticed some odd absences. There was no Asian doll in the AG line-up until very recently. Only one token doll for each race other than white. And the Native American, Latina, Jewish and African American dolls, though beautiful, were defined in their character bios and storylines entirely by their ethnicity. It’s not as if they were just regular girls with a range of skin colours and hair textures; they had to have teepees and make tortillas and have narrowly escaped slavery.

These details are important — I don’t mean to suggest they are not. And they do need to be part of the spectrum of kids’ toys. But if that is the only way non-white characterizations are allowed to occur in the mainstream, then we are missing an important opportunity to really normalize the concept of diversity. And if you aren’t sure about my point, look at the Playmobil line-up: we have princesses and veterinarians and farmers. All white. Then we have Asian Family (complete with camera around Dad’s neck) and African American Family. Where is the Asian vet? The African American princess?

Aside from one not terribly 2009 successful release of an American Girl homeless doll (named Gwen Thompson – see the Good Morning America clip here) there hasn’t been much criticism in the media.

(Really? A doll representing a homeless girl living in a car with her mother that retailed for $95? When 1 out of 50 American children are truly, honest-to-goodness homeless? Someone wasn’t thinking too clearly about the price of privilege with that one. But I digress.)

It seems that compared to so much of what is on offer in the raging acid-pink girly aisles of your local toy store, these dolls come out looking pretty darned good (if you can afford them, that is).

But one recent Huffington Post article just caught my eye, in which the author takes the AG company to task for the ultra-thin models in their successful American Girl Magazine:

And so my question to American Girl is why — if they care about little girls, if they want them to grown up with a life full of imagination, to grow up and be caring, responsible babysitters — why aren’t you doing anything to act out against what seems to be the biggest issue that girls, both big and little, face on a daily basis?  Flip through your own magazine.  It’s full of ways to be a better person, to have clean, safe fun with friends.  And yet every picture is of adolescent models: thin girls who in a few short years might be walking the catwalk, selling us the products and the body image that we’re supposed to want and have, but ultimately can’t and won’t.  I look through your magazine and I don’t see my daughter.  I don’t see normal girls, some who are short, some who are pudgy or overweight alongside the tall thin ones.  The reality I see in your magazine isn’t the reality of Isabela and some of her friends and classmates; it’s the reality of an industry that profits by telling us that we’re not good enough.  American Girl magazine runs the risk of telling my daughter, aged seven, that she’s not good enough.  Is this the best you can do?

Excellent question. And perhaps this diversity of size might also be applied to the dolls themselves, which while relatively normally proportioned, certainly don’t reflect the  20% of U.S. children under 11 who are considered clinically obese according to the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta.

It comes down to our choices as parents: what do we want to reflect to our children in their toys and playthings? How much range of choice do we have in offering them different kids of representation? How much dialogue do we have with them about what is on offer?

I’d prefer my daughters to have an American Girl doll over a Bratz doll any day, but I’m not entirely satisfied there either. So we’ve used it as a platform for discussion about all of these different kinds of things since they got the dolls as presents from their great-aunt and uncle, right down to our fraught visits to the shops (in which they chose to spend their birthday money on stuffed dog companions for their dolls).

I was surprised and touched to see one of girls (then six years old) choose Josefina, the Latina doll, for her own, (though we live in Montreal and don’t personally know anyone Latino/a), simply because she loved her olive skin, thick hair and the accompanying chapter books about life two hundred years ago in New Mexico. I was always pleased to see the open-ended ways they played with the dolls (though my older ones have long since passed them down to their younger sister), where they were not limited to recreating the narrative of the TV shows that seem to define other dolls and action heroes.

In many ways, the dolls offer the girls whose families can afford them a wonderful play experience. But as a parent, it’s important not to ignore the complex issues that lurk beneath the blank, conventionally pretty faces we offer up to our children as models of girlhood.



Health Canada: Parents Should Limit Cellphone Use for Kids Under 18

After years of confusing statements from experts on the real risks of cellphone usage, Health Canada has finally come out with a more definitive warning to parents to limit usage for kids under 18.

While the new warning seems at first glance to be only a slight shift from the previous Health Canada position (which told people to limit their cellphone use if they were concerned about unproven allegations that the devices could increase one’s risk of brain cancer), they are significant in putting credibility in the assertions.

According to CBC news:

The new advice, a response to a World Health Organization report issued in May, reminds people they can reduce their exposure to radio-frequency energy by limiting the length of their cellphone calls and substituting text messages or chats on hands-free devices in the place of phone-to-ear cellphone calls.

Radio-frequency energy is the type of radiation emitted by cellphones. It’s also given off by AM-FM radios and TV broadcast signals.

There are an estimated 24 million cellphones in Canada; five billion people around the globe owned cellphones in 2010.

The question related to the health effects on children has to do with their developing brains, their smaller heads, and the potential for accumulating more years of cellphone exposure when they start young. Are they more susceptible to the potentially carcinogenic effects of cellphones? With 35% of kids getting their first cellphone at the age of 8, are we unwittingly subjecting them to a higher risk of getting brain cancer when they grow up?

It would be great if the experts could tell us for sure, but the research on the topic is divided, and frequently controversial (where the research is sponsored by the telecommunications industry, for example, or where the conclusion offered differs from the actual data presented within the article).

We do know that one influential 2009 study that reviewed the 11 long term studies on health risks of cellphone use found a roughly 50% increased risk in developing brain tumours on the side of the head preferred for cellphone use. We also know that both the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and now Health Canada believe there are enough risks to warrant a warning.

So what should we do as parents? The experts recommend limiting the amount of time we spend using the cellphones to begin with. Since most kids tend to use their phones mostly for texting rather than talking, the risk is already reduced. Experts say the health impact of mobile phones comes from placing the antenna next to the head, so holding it in your hands is presumably less of a problem.

Other suggestions are to use a hands-free system (or the speaker function) rather than holding the phone up to your head or using a Bluetooth device that hooks onto your ear. And finally, use this Health Canada warning as an impetus for conversation with your kids about their (and your) use of cellphones. They should know the concerns so they can factor them into their own decisions about how often talking on the phone fits into their lives.