Caffeine consumption rises among high school students

Children and young adults are the fastest growing population of caffeine consumers, with an increase of 70% in the past three decades.
Children and young adults are the fastest growing population of caffeine consumers, with an increase of 70% in the past three decades.
Krista Fleming

A venti Starbucks cold brew sweats on the table.

A few desks over, it’s a Monster. Behind that, there’s a Celsius. To the right, twin Dunkin’ coffees.

Each desk has a different drink; each beverage belongs to a different owner. Ten years ago, counseling and mental health teacher Jacqueline Rans said it was only a handful of kids with caffeinated beverages every day. Now, it’s half of her students.

“It’s the same kids every day,” Rans said. “I could tell you who the kid is and what they drink.”

Children and young adults are the fastest growing population of caffeine consumers, with an increase of 70% in the past three decades. Of the 748 students surveyed through a Google Form sent out by “The Hawk Eye,” 56% said they consume caffeine multiple times a week.

“People look at these beverages and see it as something ‘cute’ and ‘aesthetic,’” Rans said. “They don’t see caffeine for what it really is: highly addictive and potentially dangerous.”

Caffeine is a stimulant drug that awakens the central nervous system and makes the person who consumes it more alert. Caffeine can be found in coffee beans, cacao and tea leaves.

“There’s a lot of controversy on [caffeine consumption],” family medicine specialist Dr. Natalia Gutierez said. “There’s a certain level of caffeine that most scientists and doctors recommend. It’s when you exceed that level that problems arise. The issue I see is too many people exceeding that level.”

Growth of consumption

The global energy drink market is projected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 7.1% from 2021 to 2028, with Red Bull holding the largest market share at 43%. In 2020, the market reached a record $11.5 billion in the U.S.

“Teens like energy drinks because they’re in a can,” junior Avery Kate Elliott said. “You don’t have to brew it or boil anything; you just have to grab something from the fridge, [drink it] and then you have energy.”

Even more so than energy drinks, adolescents consume most of their caffeine through soda. Despite it being linked to obesity and diabetes, 28.5% of the students polled said they drink soda more often than any other caffeinated beverage.

“The soda industry is getting pushed to kids,” Gutierez said. “It’s really shocking to see so many kids drinking sodas. When I was growing up, that was normal, but we didn’t know the harm. Now we do, yet we’re not seeing a change.”

Although the school no longer sells energy drinks in its vending machine, it does sell coffee through the Java City cafe. Junior Noorain Aziz said she was surprised when the cafe was reintroduced in 2022.

“One time, I went to the cafe and asked for a coffee with three extra shots of espresso and she gave it to me,” Aziz said. “There was no pause or question of ‘Does this high school student need all this caffeine?’ She just gave it to me.”

Health Effects
The pull tabs of all the caffeinated beverages Elliott consumed at school between January to April. There were 71 tabs in total, with 53 of them coming from Celcius. (Krista Fleming)

Caffeine has a half-life of five to six hours, meaning it takes five to six hours for there to be half as much caffeine in one’s blood after consuming it. Due to the amount of time caffeine keeps one’s mind active, Gutierez said constant consumption can be unhealthy.

“Your brain can’t be alert all the time,” Gutierez said. “It needs to rest, too. It doesn’t just need to rest through sleep, either. Sometimes, it needs to just be bored. If you’re in a constant state of alertness due to caffeine, your brain never gets that rest.”

Gutierez said she tries to get teenagers to maintain a healthy sleep cycle by telling them to drink less caffeine, rather than giving them medication to help them sleep.

“It’s a constant cycle,” Gutierez said. “Teenagers need something to wake them up and something to put them to sleep. Their sleep cycles are all artificial.”

Excessive caffeine consumption raises the risk of having panic attacks and increases levels of anxiety. Rans said that her students who consume caffeine regularly are also more likely to have ups and downs in their mood throughout the day.

“I have students who struggle with anxiety, and they come in, drink three Red Bulls and hope it’ll help them cope,” Rans said. “Then it doesn’t make things better, and they’re even more anxious because they’re feeling the effects of that caffeine.”

There are 100 to 300 milligrams of caffeine in an average energy drink, compared to the 95 milligrams found in a cup of coffee. Energy drinks have a higher chance than any other caffeinated beverage at creating heart complications, increasing anxiety and making the consumer dehydrated.

“Energy drinks are not safe,” Gutierez said. “People don’t realize that caffeine is not the only ingredient in the drinks. Despite how they’re marketed, energy drinks are unhealthy.”

It is safe for an average adult to consume 400 milligrams of caffeine a day. However, children have a lower tolerance for caffeine and higher risk of overdose, which occurs when one consumes too much caffeine and not enough water or food.

This almost happened to Elliott. She said she drank three large Charged Lemonades from Panera Bread — an item that has since been taken off the menu due to multiple lawsuits — and had to stand still at work for hours to give her heart time to calm down.

“It was like my heart was going to explode,” Elliott said. “When I bought it, I didn’t even realize it had that much caffeine. I just went in there and drank lemonade — I didn’t mean to down that insane amount of caffeine.”

Sophomore Luke Tippets had a similar experience on May 1, when he drank a Celsius and a few Dr Peppers after not eating much that morning. When he stood up in class, he said he felt nauseous and almost passed out.

“My vision went black,” Tippets said. “I went to the nurse and they checked my heart rate. My eyes were going all over the place, I was really pale [and] my blood pressure was high.”

At the hospital the next day, the doctors told him he had overdosed on caffeine.

“I’m planning on cutting back,” Tippets said. “Over the summer, I’m going to slowly drink less caffeine, but I don’t think I can stop all at once.”


While caffeine use can be a non-harmful habit, when consumption becomes a daily necessity, addiction is possible. In a study of 167 weekly caffeine consumers, 35% met the criteria for caffeine dependence. Junior Riley Unterbug said it can be hard to remember that caffeine is addictive when she sees her peers drinking it in high doses.

“Sometimes, I tell myself it’s not an addiction — that it’s fine,” Unterbug said. “Everyone drinks coffee. Everyone needs caffeine.”

Like other addictive substances, not consuming caffeine can lead to withdrawals, such as headaches, fatigue, irritability, drowsiness and difficulty concentrating. Of the students surveyed, 13% said they experience withdrawals when they go without caffeine.

“Students lean upon caffeine,” Rans said. “They depend on it. They think it’s helping, but it’s not.”

When Rans teaches addiction in her class, she tells her students about caffeine. However, she said she sees students take it less seriously.

“It’s not as bad as other things they could be addicted to,” Rans said. “That’s their mindset. It’s [the] lesser of two evils, but that doesn’t make it good.”

Those who drink caffeine more consistently are more likely to have other addictions, such as smoking or drug usage.

“Starting [to consume caffeine] at this young of an age will set students up for an addiction throughout their life,” Rans said. “Right now it’s caffeine, but what happens when that doesn’t work anymore? What are the kids going to turn to?”

Societal pressures

Though teenagers need approximately nine hours of sleep, they get an average of seven hours a night. Of the students polled, 62.3% said they have consumed caffeine to make up for a lack of sleep, with 17.3% saying they do so on a weekly basis.

“Kids are [under] more pressure to perform better, faster [and] smarter,” Rans said. “AP classes, grades and college acceptances are being pushed toward them. They’re going to do what they think they need to do to reach that higher potential. A lot of times, that means turning to caffeine.”

During marching season, Aziz, who is a drum major in band, said she would drink two coffees a day. On competition or football game days, she averaged three to four coffees or energy drinks.

“Just the sheer amount of hours I put in — the late nights and the early mornings — makes me need caffeine,” Aziz said. “It’s all about picking and choosing what you can do and what you need to sacrifice. More often than not, it means grabbing a coffee to sacrifice sleep.”

Though her coffee consumption leveled back down to a coffee a day during the second semester of the year, Aziz said it picks back up again when she has a test, especially during finals. Aziz said she drinks much more coffee to stay awake and study for exams.

“It becomes a competition,” Aziz said. “‘How unhealthy are you?’ ‘How little sleep can you get?’ There’s this sense of unhealthy affirmation when someone tells you they [could] never function on as little sleep as you get and do all that you do. It’s a bragging right: ‘I got two hours of sleep and still have so much more work to do.’”

It becomes a competition. ‘How unhealthy are you?’ ‘How little sleep can you get?’ There’s this sense of unhealthy affirmation when someone tells you they [could] never function on as little sleep as you get and do all that you do. It’s a bragging right: ‘I got two hours of sleep and still have so much more work to do.’”

— Noorain Aziz, junior

Sophomore Olivia Ronderos said she thinks students drink caffeine due to their procrastination, which 80% of adolescents said they do.

“Everyone wants to do everything later,” Ronderos said. “They start homework at midnight [and] go to bed at 2 a.m. It’s not that teenagers don’t have time to get everything done; it’s that they only have time to get things done. People use caffeine to stay awake long enough to just be.”

The global caffeine market is projected to continue growing at 7.5% for the next six years and reach $28.95 billion by 2030. Unterbug said she thinks this is due to the accessibility of caffeine — as there are 38.4 thousand coffee shops in the U.S. alone — and a push of caffeine culture, especially through social media.

“[Every] AP class you take [and] extracurricular you do [becomes] just another reason to be reliant on caffeine,” Unterbug said. “It’s an answer to your lack of time. ‘[Do] you have homework? Just drink a coffee in the morning.’”

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  • J

    JMay 22, 2024 at 9:26 PM

    Bro it’s literally only band kids I think somethings up with us😭😭