High-caffeine energy drinks are designed to give you a boost, but a new study has found that teens prone to depression, and those who use drugs and alcohol, are more likely to consume them.

“While it remains unclear why these associations exist, the trend is a concern because of the high rate of consumption among teenagers,” said Sunday Azagba, a scientist with the Propel Centre for Population Health Impact at the University of Waterloo and lead author on the paper.

Sunday Azagba

The paper, published in Preventive Medicine by researchers at the University of Waterloo and Dalhousie University, surveyed 8,210 high school students and found students prone to depression or those who are involved in risky behaviours are more likely to consume energy drinks than other teens.

A dangerous combination: energy drinks and drug and alcohol use

Nearly two-thirds of the students surveyed reported using energy drinks at least once in the past year, with more than 20 percent consuming them once or more per month. Younger high school students were more likely to consume energy drinks than older ones.

“These drinks appeal to young people because of their temporary benefits like increased alertness, improved mood and enhanced mental and physical energy,” said Azagba. “Marketing campaigns appear designed to entice youth and young adults. It’s a dangerous combination, especially for those at an increased risk for substance abuse,” he said.

Energy drinks have been shown to cause a number of negative health effects in their own right, including cardiovascular symptoms, sleep impairment, nervousness and nausea. The side effects are caused by the beverages’ high concentration of caffeine.

Given the negative health effects of excessive caffeine consumption as well as the link between consuming energy drinks and negative teen behaviours, “the trends we are seeing are more than cause for concern,” said Azagba.

Teens’ access to energy drinks should be limited

In recent years, energy drink sales have skyrocketed, with sales forecasted to reach $20 billion in 2013 in the United States alone.

“In our opinion, at the very least, steps should be taken to limit teens’ access to energy drinks, to increase public awareness and education about the potential harms of these drinks and to minimize the amount of caffeine available in each unit,” said Azagba. “This won’t eliminate the problem entirely, but steps like these can help mitigate harm to our youth. This is something we need to take seriously. Change won’t happen without a concerted effort.”

The study was based on data from the 2012 Student Drug Use Survey, consisting of a representative sample of junior and senior high school students from three provinces in Atlantic Canada.