Why Children and Teens Should Avoid Energy Drinks

Dr. James Grant

| 3 min read

James D. Grant, M.D. is senior vice president and chief...

Almost one-third of teens between the ages of 12 and 17 years of age say they regularly consume energy drinks, according to the National Institutes of Health. Energy drinks are highly marketed as offering a boost of energy, improved performance and sharper mental focus. They rely heavily on caffeine and added sugars to produce that effect, as well as other ingredients that can stimulate the body.
This is why energy drinks carry many safety concerns, particularly for adolescents. Not only are they harmful to adolescents’ physical and mental health, but they have also been linked as a contributing factor to accidents and bad reactions.

Hidden caffeine

Whether it’s a 16-ounce bottle of an energy drink or 2-ounce energy “shot,” most energy drink products contain high levels of caffeine that are problematic for adults and unsafe for children and teens. There is no proven safe dosage of caffeine for children – and doctors advise against any energy drink use for adolescents. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting caffeine to less than 100 mg per day for adolescents ages 12 to 18, which is the equivalent of two 12-ounce cans of pop.
A 16-ounce energy drink may contain 70 to 240 mg of caffeine, and an energy shot may contain 113 to 200 mg of caffeine. While that may be the amount of caffeine that’s put on the label, the true amount of caffeine in the drinks is likely much higher: many energy drinks contain guarana, which is another source of caffeine. Other ingredients may have similar stimulating effects – making the true amount of caffeine in the drink difficult to discern and not easy to identify.
As most children and teens do not habitually consume caffeine, any exposure to an energy drink is likely going to cause an amplified response, as they do not have a tolerance to the substance. 

Safety concerns

Consuming large amounts of caffeine is problematic for any individual, but for children and teens the impacts are even more acute on their physical and mental health. Adverse reactions to caffeine can cause mild negative effects such as:
  • Anxiety
  • Dehydration
  • Headaches
  • Insomnia and sleep disturbances
  • Mood swings
  • Nervousness
  • Upset stomach and digestive problems 
Severe adverse effects of caffeine include:
  • Cardiovascular problems, including atrial fibrillation, palpitation and tachycardia 
  • Renal and liver disease
  • Seizures
Additionally, many times energy drinks are combined with alcohol, which can lead to additional negative impacts. In extreme cases, combining energy drinks and alcohol can be fatal.

Interactions with ADHD medications

For individuals who are managing attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) with medication, the use of energy drinks can be especially dangerous. Many ADHD medications are stimulants, which already come with side effects of increased heart rate and blood pressure. 

Talking to teens

Educating children and teens about the high amounts of caffeine in energy drinks and energy shots is a good first step. Discuss how energy drinks and hydrating, electrolyte-based sports drinks are different – and how excessive amounts of caffeine can be dangerous
Offer other ways for adolescents to boost their energy, such as:
  • Eating all of their meals, aiming for a balance of protein, carbohydrates and healthy fats at each meal
  • Having healthy snacks at the ready for transition times between school and after-school activities
  • Adding dairy foods like milk, yogurt and cheese to meals, as they offer complete nutrition with protein, carbohydrates and healthy fats
  • Staying hydrated with water
  • Taking a short movement break to walk or jog 
  • Prioritizing high-quality sleep
Talk with a health care provider about any concerns over energy drink consumption, especially if an adolescent is taking medication.
James D. Grant, M.D., is chief medical officer at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan. For more health news and information, visit MIBluesPerspectives.com. 
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