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Caffeine Dependence In Teens

Many people joke that they can’t start the day without a coffee, but for some teens, a legitimate addiction can result from overuse of caffeine. This drug comes in many forms, some more intense than others.

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6 min read

Is Caffeine a Drug?

Coffee beans and pills

Caffeine occurs naturally in over 60 plants, such as coffee beans and tea leaves. These plants use caffeine as a natural insecticide. In order to be added to energy drinks and sodas, caffeine is isolated from its natural source and made into a white powder, which tastes quite bitter. Manufacturers counteract this taste by adding sweetener to their products.

While the dangers of caffeine abuse don’t have the reputation of harder drugs like heroin or cocaine, caffeine is considered a psychoactive drug because it stimulates the body’s central nervous system. It may not hurt to enjoy a coffee or even an occasional energy drink, but it is unhealthy to habitually consume large amounts of caffeine.

There is a difference between caffeine dependence and caffeine addiction. In the case of dependence, a teen may simply have trouble thoroughly waking up without a daily dose of caffeine. Though not ideal, this situation is not that abnormal. When it comes to teenage addiction, however, a child can crave caffeine to an unnatural point, where they cannot function without it.

How Much Caffeine Is Too Much?

Since the 1970s, the number of teens using caffeine has tripled, with about 75% of U.S. adolescents regularly consuming it today. In fact, teens are currently the fastest-growing population of American coffee consumers.

It is perfectly legal for a teenager to consume caffeine, and moderate caffeine intake can actually complement your teen’s good study habits. It can help sharpen their focus and increase their alertness. However, the key word here is “moderate.” The maximum recommended caffeine intake for teens is 100 mg per day. To put this into perspective, an 8-oz cup of brewed coffee contains 100–200 mg of caffeine.

Coffee Shops

Cup of coffee on a table

There is a social element to drinking caffeine, which may well be a reason that teens’ coffee consumption has grown so much over the past few decades. All across the country, coffee shops are springing up in droves, and this usually spells good news for parents. These spaces offer an alternative to clubs, where party drugs are likely to be found. Coffee shops often have wifi, making them an appealing spot for teens who want to hang out with their friends outside of home and school.

If a teenager wants to safely enjoy more than one cup of coffee, they can ask their barista for a “half caff” beverage, which contains only half the caffeine that it normally does. For teens, moderate coffee drinking makes an excellent alternative to alcohol consumption.

How Is Caffeine Used?

Caffeine is most commonly ingested in beverage form, but the drug is consumed in other ways, too. The market is full of caffeinated edibles, from energy bars to candies to cookies to beef jerky and more. These snacks vary widely in their levels of the drug.

Caffeine pills — which are often used for studying — can deliver up to 200 mg of caffeine per pill, about the same amount as a cup of coffee. Pure, powdered caffeine — which can be easily purchased online — is mixed into beverages or snorted.

Here are the caffeine levels of some popular caffeinated beverages:

  • 8 oz black tea: 42 mg
  • 8 oz green tea: 25 mg
  • 8 oz brewed coffee: 100–200 mg
  • 12 oz Coca-Cola: 34 mg
  • 12 oz Mountain Dew: 54 mg
  • 12 oz Jolt: 143 mg
  • 8.4 oz Red Bull: 80 mg
  • 16 oz Monster Energy: 160 mg
  • 16 oz Rockstar: 160 mg
  • Regular Strength 5-Hour Energy: 200 mg
  • 5-Hour Energy Extra Strength: 242 mg

Caffeine and Alcohol

Some teens consume alcohol combined with caffeine in order to prolong their energy when partying. Unfortunately, this practice is rampant among college students, and many teens follow that example. It is unsafe to add a depressant like alcohol to a stimulant like caffeine, because caffeine temporarily obscures the effects of alcohol, leading teens to feel that they’ve consumed less alcohol than they actually have. Teens who mix caffeine and alcohol are three times more likely to binge drink.

Half of the energy drink market consists of people under age 25, with 30–50% of that population being consumers. Thus, it makes sense that caffeinated energy drinks are often mixed with hard liquors to make Caffeinated Alcoholic Beverages (CABs).

American manufacturers were formerly allowed to sell pre-mixed CABs. In 2010, the Food and Drug Administration issued a warning to four manufacturers, stating that the combination of alcohol and caffeine was unsafe. The makers were given two weeks to remove their CABs from shelves or face federal seizure of their products. By this time, the popular CAB Four Loko — which comes in a variety of fruity flavors, seemingly marketed at young people — had already been banned by a handful of states and universities. In advance of a federal lawsuit, the maker opted to remove caffeine from its alcoholic beverages, and only retain the alcohol. Of course, caffeine removal has not stopped teens from simply purchasing energy drinks and alcohol separately, then mixing them.

Caffeine and Other Drugs

Johns Hopkins University researchers Chad Reissiga, Eric Straina and Roland Griffiths found that energy drink consumption is strongly tied to the use of illicit drugs among 8th–12th graders. Griffiths stated that energy drinks should be considered a gateway drug. That is, if teens consume energy drinks, they are more likely to consume illicit substances in the future.

Negative Effects of Caffeine

A group of young people sitting around a computer

Though caffeine can be beneficial to consumers, it does not always have a positive impact. If your teen consumes more of this drug than they should, they may experience caffeine intoxication, a syndrome that is recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

Caffeine intoxication is marked by the following symptoms:

  • Jitters
  • Anxiety or nervousness
  • Restlessness
  • Insomnia
  • Rapid heart rate (tachycardia)
  • Heart palpitations
  • Dehydration
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Confusion
  • Hallucinations
  • Stomach upset
  • Tremors
  • Excessive urination
  • Diarrhea

How Does Caffeine Affect the Brain and Body?

Caffeine blocks the brain chemical adenosine, which tells the body when it is tired. Stephen Braun, author of Buzz: The Science and Lore of Alcohol and Caffeine, explains this process like so: “Drinking caffeine is like putting a block of wood under one of the brain’s primary brake pedals.”

Following ingestion, caffeine goes straight to the bloodstream and stays there for at least six hours. The brain then begins to produce more adrenaline than usual, which enhances energy and attention levels. This would otherwise be great, but the body slowly becomes accustomed to receiving caffeine and develops a tolerance to the drug. This means that larger and larger doses of caffeine are required to achieve the same energy-inducing effect. If a teen who has developed a caffeine tolerance suddenly stops consuming the drug, then they will experience fatigue, lowered attentiveness and possibly even headaches.

Caffeine and Sleep

Teenagers need more sleep than adults, because their bodies are growing and changing so rapidly. Unfortunately, insomnia (the inability to fall or stay asleep) is a common occurrence in teens who overindulge in caffeine. Insomnia can have a terrible impact upon a teen’s life, and impact their studies, social life and even contribute to mental disorders such as depression and anxiety.

Can You Overdose On Caffeine?

Fountain soda

It is possible to overdose on caffeine. On many occasions, teens admitted to emergency rooms have displayed caffeine overdose symptoms such as convulsions and irregular heartbeat.

In some cases, caffeine overdose can even cause death. Pure caffeine — a powder that can be purchased online — is often involved in caffeine-related deaths. In 2014, tragedy struck in Ohio when 18-year old Logan James Stiner died after accidentally ingesting too much powdered caffeine. Not long after, 24-year-old Georgian James Wade Sweatt also overdosed on powdered caffeine and died.

How to Help Your Child

If you suspect that your teen is using too much caffeine or may even be suffering from caffeine addiction, begin by talking to your teen about drugs. If you cannot solve the issue at home and caffeine continues to cause significant problems in your teen’s life, a drug rehab program may be the answer. Caffeine addiction may be strong, but with the right help, it can be overcome. Check out our teen drug abuse resources for parents for more information.

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