Teens need more information about the potential damage that results from caffeine consumption, says a new study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.

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Parents and friends influence teens to drink coffee.

Caffeine is a drug: a readily available, widely used, legally accessible and socially acceptable psychoactive substance. Anyone, of any age, can use it, and its popularity is growing, especially among young people.

Statistics show that adolescents are the fastest-growing population of caffeine users. Studies have indicated that 83.2% of teenagers consume caffeinated beverages regularly, and at least 96% consume them occasionally.

While caffeinated energy drinks have received media attention, only 1% of caffeine consumption among adolescents comes from these drinks.

Coffee is an obvious culprit, but many teens do not realize that tea, including iced tea, and sodas can contain substantial amounts of caffeine.

The Mayo Clinic state that up to 400 mg of caffeine a day is probably safe for most healthy adults. That is approximately four cups of brewed coffee, 10 cans of cola or two “energy shot” drinks.

More than 500-600 mg a day, they term “heavy daily caffeine use.” Heavy use can cause side effects, such as nervousness, anxiety, jitteriness, sleep problems, gastrointestinal disturbances, tremors, increased heart rate and even death.

Even moderate doses of 100-400 mg can cause symptoms in children and adolescents.

Prior studies show that many adolescents are consuming 60-800 mg per day. The Mayo Clinic suggest a maximum of 100 mg a day for adolescents and none for younger children.

Researchers from Brescia University College in Ontario, Canada, wanted to explore adolescents’ attitudes and beliefs regarding caffeinated beverages and to establish which factors influenced their choice of beverage and consumption patterns.

The study investigated 166 young people, of whom 42% were male and 72% were students in grades 9 and10. The team collected responses from 20 discussion groups and data gathered from a questionnaire.

Findings showed that 44.6% of respondents drank caffeinated beverages one to six times per week, 11.4% consumed a caffeinated beverage every day, and only 4.8% never consumed drinks containing caffeine.

The main reason for consuming caffeinated drinks was to feel more alert, because this, they said, would help them study better.

Fast facts about caffeine
  • One 8-ounce cup of brewed coffee contains 95-200 mg of caffeine
  • One restaurant-style 1-ounce cup of espresso contains 47-75 mg
  • One 8-ounce “specialty” coffee such as mocha or latte contains 63-175 mg.

Learn more about caffeine

Caffeinated beverages are also popular because they are “grown-up” and easy to access. For example, students can generally go from their school to a nearby store to purchase drinks. Many consume caffeine because it happens to be present in popular soft drinks.

Parental role modeling was an important factor. As parents commonly drink coffee in the morning, and many offer it to their children, it appears to be safe and acceptable.

Media and advertising, including brand image, celebrity endorsement and advertising on TV and at sports events, encourage consumption. Social norms also play a role, as adolescents either want to feel included or they are curious to try a friend’s new drink.

There was a high awareness overall of the negative health effects of caffeine and of the sources, although most respondents were unsure about the caffeine content of tea and soft drinks.

The researchers concluded that further education could help young people to make better decisions about caffeine intake.

Senior author Danielle S. Battram, PhD, comments that developing more comprehensive educational strategies and enhancing policies could help to discourage adolescents from consuming caffeine, thereby limiting the potential health risks.

She adds:

Caffeine overconsumption and caffeine intoxication have serious health effects, even in moderate doses. With that in mind, we need to correct the misconceptions adolescents have regarding certain aspects of caffeine.”

The team hopes to develop specific educational strategies to reduce caffeine intake, and to establish user-friendly ways to help people remember what the recommended daily intake should be.

The authors also recommend promoting alternative ways to boost energy, such as a healthy diet and getting enough sleep.

Medical News Today recently reported that caffeine may have benefits in staving off multiple sclerosis.