Are teens consuming too much caffeine?

a couple of teen girls holding tennis rackets and a ball with images of energy drinks and coffee - are teens consuming too much caffeine

Making sure your child is eating balanced meals at regular intervals—especially during the busy teen years, when you barely have any face-time with them—is challenging for any parent. According to a new national poll, a quarter of parents believe their teens consume caffeine daily or nearly every day, though it seems they’re unsure about how much caffeine intake is safe.

Researchers from the University of Michigan Health C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health asked 1,095 respondents across the country how often their teen consumes caffeinated beverages, whether or not they think their child’s caffeine consumption is “appropriate,” and whether or not they’re aware of the recommended caffeine limits for kids.

With 1 in 4 parents noting that their teen consumes caffeine regularly, two-thirds believe they know how much is “appropriate,” though a third were not able to accurately pinpoint suggested caffeine limits.

“Our report suggests parents may not always be aware of how much they should be limiting caffeine consumption for teens,” said poll co-director and Mott pediatrician Susan Woolford, M.D. “Even for parents who know the recommendations, estimating their teen’s caffeine intake can be challenging.”

According to the poll, soda is the top caffeinated drink of choice among teens, followed by tea and coffee in second place. Less than a fourth of parents reported that their teen consumes energy drinks.

Two in 5 parents of regular caffeine consumers say their teen drinks it because it’s in their favorite products, while less than a fourth attribute the habit to following along with their peers. Very few respondents believe their teen is using caffeine to stay awake, manage early school days or help with focus.

“As parents appear to suggest that teens consume caffeine more for the taste than for the stimulant effect, it may be possible for parents to encourage the use of similar tasting options that are caffeine free,” Woolford said. “But parents may not even be aware that kids are drinking several caffeinated drinks a day and how it’s adding up.”

It seems that most respondents believe their teen’s caffeine consumption is happening during meal times, while a third of teens are consuming caffeine with their friends and a quarter in school. Of course, it’s impossible to say if teens are underreporting their own caffeine intake to their parents, and the results don’t account for caffeine content in other products, such as gum, snack bars, or over-the-counter pain relievers.

Curious how much caffeine is safe for your kids? “There is no proven safe dose of caffeine for children,” as Arunima Agarwal, MD, a board-certified pediatrician in New York City, previously told Motherly. “Pediatricians advise against caffeine entirely for children under 12 and against using energy drinks for all children and teens. They also suggest limiting caffeine to 100 mg (about two 12 oz cans of cola) daily for those 12 to 18 years old,” explains Dr. Agarwal. For reference, an 8-ounce cup of regular coffee has about 100 milligrams of caffeine, which is the maximum recommended daily limit for teenagers.

But what are the risks, exactly? “Extreme caffeine intake among children has been linked to elevated heart rates, high blood pressure levels, disturbed sleep patterns, and anxiety attacks, along with negative impacts on brain development, potential weight gain, and dental issues from the high sugar,” explains Laura Purdy MD, a board-certified family physician who’s licensed to practice in all 50 states.

“Taking quiet time out to rest, read, walk, meditate and put away the electronics also replenishes the brain, increases focus, and decreases anxiety,” as Kimberlee Blyden-Taylor, ND, MSc, a naturopathic doctor who practices in Canada, previously told Motherly.

There are some telltale signs your child is consuming too much caffeine, according to the poll’s co-director. “If your teenager regularly consumes caffeine and is having a hard time sleeping or if they appear jittery, you should take a closer look at whether their caffeine intake is too high,” Woolford said.

As with any concerns, checking in with your child’s pediatrician is never a bad idea. Peeking at product labels and having open, honest communication with your kid can help, too. “Parents should consider talking with their teen about the negative impact of excessive caffeine, and then explore non-caffeinated options they can try together at home, at school or when out with friends,” Woolford said. “Parents may also enlist the teen’s healthcare provider in explaining the risks of caffeine and suggesting strategies to cut back.”