Can Caffeine Be Addictive In Young Children?

With a lot of deserved attention being paid to cannabis, vaping and opiates, it is very easy to ignore one of the most commonly used substances in childhood and adolescence – caffeine.  Fortunately, a new review paper published assists us with what is known and isn’t known about the effects of caffeine intake on youth, based upon 90 different individual researches.

Rates of Caffeine Use
About 75% of older children and youth consume caffeine regularly, frequently at an average dose of about 25mg/day in children between the ages of 6 to 11 and 50mg/day in young people. The paper helps convert those dosages into some common products:

  • Soda (12oz) about 40mg
  • Coffee (8oz) about 100mg
  • Tea (8oz) about 48mg
  • Energy Drinks (12oz) about 150mg plus with 5-Hour Energy being around 215mg according to a Consumer Reports study

Effects of Caffeine
Caffeine is a stimulant as well as can raise arousal, alertness, and amount of motor behavior. There are some researches that show improvements on some cognitive tests when youngsters take moderate doses of caffeine, but these effects tend to be most pronounced for kids who don’t consume much caffeine at baseline.  At the risk of stating the obvious, one of the most consistent impacts of caffeine is that it can reduce feelings of fatigue and sleepiness.  Many parents of children who meet criteria for ADHD also report some advantage, although more methodical data on this subject is lacking.

Of course, there are also some downsides.  One of the major ones is that caffeine can disturb the sleep, inducing a cycle that reinforces more caffeine consumption in the day to compensate for the poor sleep at night.  A less negative effect may be that the caffeine added to sweet beverages can increase consumption of other sugary foods, even if they don’t have caffeine.

At higher doses (which may be in the level above 400mg/day for teens and just about 100mg/day for younger kids), the risks increases for a number of other negative effects, such as agitation, heart arrhythmias, and irritability, blood pressure increases, and anxiety. There have even been a number of cases of sudden death that have been due to high caffeine intake, although overall it is rare.  One complicating factor that might increase the risk of a serious medical result with caffeine is having an underlying cardiac problem, which unfortunately sometimes goes undetected until the event happens. Referring back to the conversion above, some parents might be a little surprised to see how effortlessly a child can get to a dose of caffeine that is considered excessive.

There are also some large long-term studies that have shown an association between increased caffeine consumption and future problems with aggression, anger, risky sexual behavior, and substance use.  Energy drinks, which can deliver a lot of caffeine instantly, are marked out as particularly problematic in some of the studies, although determining causation in such kinds of studies is always tricky. It may be that teenagers who are already prone to have these kinds of behavioral problems already are the ones who also likely to intake high volumes of caffeine. On the other hand, the research also mentions animal studies that indicate that caffeine may force the brain to use other substances like amphetamines or cocaine. Sometimes, energy drinks also contain other substances with similar effects that are relatively untested.

Altogether, the FDA considers caffeine as generally safe at low doses and seems like it does not appear to be much evidence that low or moderate use in youngsters leads to significant problems.  The story changes, however, with higher levels of consumption, and the article recommends that mutually parents and doctors turn more vigilant in monitoring caffeine intake in young children (and the time of day it is being used) and in limiting intake to lesser amounts.  The article also urges more research especially in youngster, as many of the regulations and standards regarding caffeine used are old and developed from adult statistics.