As a Princeton freshman, Jon Essenburg kept himself awake for all-night video game binges by swigging Bawls, the "traditional online gamer's drink," as he calls it, that contains four times as much caffeine as a cup of coffee. On "hardcore" gaming streaks, Essenburg says, he'd drink two a day, stay up until noon and then crash, snoozing through his classes and waking up only for dinner and more playing time. As the creator and manager of an online gaming guild that connects a hundred players from around the world, the psychology major from Englewood, Fla., says he had to set an example with six or eight hours a day. "It would get to the point where I couldn't play and pass school at the same time," he says. "I would have to completely uninstall the games from my computer and spend about three weeks catching up."
Essenburg insists he's neither a video game addict nor a caffeine junkie, attributing his habits to irresponsibility and a taste for caffeine. Experts say that both compulsions are hard to distinguish from plain old enthusiasm. "Initially [video gaming] may seem benign," says Douglas Colvert, a psychologist at the student counseling and resource service at the University of Chicago, noting that scores of students play but only a minority become addicted. Adds Jim Lane, director of the Duke University psychophysiology laboratory: "People are less aware of caffeine as a drug than they are of alcohol and other recreational drugs that people come upon in college." But for students across the country, habits sometimes cross the line into compulsion. And campus health clinics are now working to provide help for students with unhealthy dependencies on video games and caffeine.
Nearly 90% of adults ingest caffeine every day, according to the Journal of the American Diabetic Association, and National Geographic has described caffeine as the world's most popular psychoactive drug. For exhausted college students facing hours of cramming, it's a staple. But it can also be hard to keep track of; "energy" drinks often contain more than the amount of caffeine recommended by the Food and Drug Administration for a single serving. And research shows that people who ingest as little as 100 mg of caffeine daily only about a half cup of coffee can develop a physical dependence that results in withdrawal symptoms, such as headache, fatigue and irritability.
Colvert says pervasiveness is part of the problem. In a college town, he points out, "you can throw a rock and hit a Starbucks." A 2006 study at Northwestern University found that 265 caffeine abuse cases were reported to a local U.S. regional poison control center from 2001 through 2004. The abusers' average age? Twenty-one.
"During reading period and finals week, caffeine becomes my lifeline," says Michael Wood, 20, a rising senior at Princeton University. "When you know you can chug a couple Red Bulls and stay up all night, you feel much more comfortable about leaving your semester-long research project for the last weekend before it's due."
But according to Lane from Duke University, students using caffeine as a study aid probably don't understand that it might actually work against them. Citing studies that have shown that by increasing heart rate and blood pressure, caffeine magnifies the adrenaline response in the body, Lane says students can experience something more akin to panic than alertness. "The stress of the deadline can be exaggerated by the caffeine," he says.
Binge coffee drinkers aren't the only ones who may not understand how the drug is working on their body. Students who have a cup every morning to shake grogginess might not realize that it's the caffeine that's making them fuzzy-headed in the first place. About 12 to 16 hours after ingesting a morning cup of joe in other words, around bedtime the student will begin to go into withdrawal. They interpret the initial symptom, sleepiness, as exhaustion and go to bed. When they wake up, the withdrawal has deepened and they're now feeling unable to think straight until they get their next cup. "They're essentially drinking coffee in order to restore normal functioning rather than to feel more alert than usual," Lane says.
Gamers, too, might not understand that their playing has become a compulsion, experts say. "Some of them get to the point where they have crossed a threshold, but what should seem to them to be a problem isn't disruptive enough yet," says Colvert. Compulsive playing can be especially hard to spot because, according to research done at Iowa State University, a full 80% of college students mostly boys play. Still, while scientists are debating whether to formally diagnose video game addiction, campus health professionals say they see certain students struggling with it.
Douglas Gentile, a developmental psychologist who runs the Media Research Lab at Iowa State University, says his research shows pathological gamers often attempt unsuccessfully to cut back and lie about how often they play. They also tend to get lower grades than their nonaddicted peers. "There are very clear parallels to substance addictions," he says.
According to a Harris Interactive poll released in April, nearly one out of 10 youth gamers could be classified as pathological or clinically addicted to playing video games. Nathan Burba, the president of Ithaca College's video game club, says he plays for only about an hour a day because he doesn't have time for more. But not all student gamers put academics ahead of gaming. Nearly half (48%) of college gamers in a 2003 study by the Pew Research Center reported that video games kept them from studying "some" or "a lot," and 32% confessed to playing while in class. Essenburg, however, is skeptical of the diagnosis. "Excessive irresponsibility is not synonymous with addiction," he says. "It's like comparing a chocoholic to a heroin addict."
Gentile contends that preliminary research is enough to be confident that video game addiction is a real thing in many cases. The jury is still out among the American Psychiatric Association, who have commissioned more research on the topic. For some people, Gentile adds, pathological gaming can be a telling sign of underlying conditions like depression or obsessive-compulsive disorder.
To those students who are vulnerable, a wealth of technological resources available at college, such as free wireless Internet in the dorms, can prove irresistible. "It's too easy to say, well, that won't happen to me, I'm in control," says Gentile. "I promise, every other addict of every other kind said that too."
By taking students' concerns about their caffeine use or gaming seriously, by raising awareness and by making the appropriate referrals, health professionals on college campuses are slowly gearing up to provide help to students struggling with overuse of caffeine and video games. But for now, increasing awareness still hinges on what students tell each other. All-night caffeine-fueled video game binges do "a number on your body," says Essenburg. "I wouldn't recommend it."