Milk teas – a variety of sweet drinks including bubble tea – have become phenomenally popular in China and other parts of Asia in recent years, and a new study has highlighted some worrying links between the beverage and mental health issues.

Researchers from Tsinghua University and the Central University of Finance and Economics in China surveyed 5,281 college students from Beijing, finding that symptoms of milk tea addiction were not only real, but linked to problems such as depression and anxiety.

"Milk tea has experienced tremendous growth in popularity in China, especially among youths," the researchers write in their published paper.

"Our findings highlighted that milk tea consumption might lead to addiction, and it is associated with depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation."

Using a recognized scale of addiction – that looks at factors such as persistent cravings and over-indulgence – the team found evidence that some young people were showing signs of being addicted. Almost half of those surveyed said they had at least one cup of milk tea a week.

As well as extra sugar, milk teas often include caffeine, and concerns have been expressed about how these kinds of drinks can lead to low moods and social isolation in adolescent youngsters.

In this study, milk tea consumption was associated with loneliness and depression. While the study wasn't designed to determine the cause, it does highlight a potential problem that needs to be investigated further, especially considering the increasing popularity of these types of drinks.

The researchers behind the study suggest youths in China and elsewhere could be using milk tea as a coping mechanism and a way of regulating emotions – and that these drinks could be addictive and damaging in the same way as social media or drugs.

Future research could include larger sample sizes and track milk tea consumption over longer timescales.

"The results indicate that milk tea consumption might lead to addiction symptoms, including frequency, dependence/craving, intention to stop, unable to stop, tolerance, and guilty feelings," the researchers write.

The team recommends that measures be put in place to guard against both physical and mental problems that might be linked to milk tea, from obesity and tooth decay to addiction and depression.

"Current findings can assist policymakers in developing regulations such as restricting advertising, providing psycho-education, establishing food hygiene standards for such a prosperous youth-dominant consumption industry while protecting their mental health," write the researchers.

The research has been published in the Journal of Affective Disorders.