Is Drinking Coffee at a Young Age Harmful?


You’ve probably seen them at various times – maybe when you’re on your way to work, passing a schoolyard. Kids, holding paper coffee cups with distinctive logos from shops like Starbucks. And you’re wondering, should these kids really be drinking coffee at a young age? Then you think back to your childhood, when you were barely out of diapers, and watching your mother drink what looked to you like a lovely, pretty brownish beverage that might have smelled a bit of sugar, depending on what your mother put in her brew. You remember asking, “Mommy, I has coffee too?” and her allowing you to have a little sip.

But what happened when you hit your pre-teen years? Maybe at that point, you were asking for a full cup of coffee before starting your school day. Did your mom let you have it, or did she tell you that you were too young for coffee? Did she let you have coffee once you hit your teens? Did she try to blow you off by telling you that there was actually a legal age before you could drink coffee (there isn’t) and you weren’t there yet? Or did she just fill up a mug for you and tell you, “Have at it!”

At What Age is Caffeine Safe?

As we progress through this discussion, we’ll usually use the term “coffee” when referring to caffeinated beverages. Of course, there are all kinds of beverages – sodas, energy drinks and hot chocolate are just a few – that contain caffeine, so we’re using it as a catch-all. It seems reasonable, though, given that most of the time when you see teens and pre-teens drinking caffeinated beverages, it is coffee. Maybe it’s the “cool” factor. Kids love showing up on the school grounds, thinking they sound so mature, saying “Oh, man, I’m like, literally not even human until I get my coffee!” It makes them feel like adults.

It’s kind of like smoking used to be. Kids smoked because they thought it made them look mature. Now, nobody born in this century thinks that smoking makes you look like anything other than an idiot who is committing slow suicide. But back in the day, it was cool. Today, drinking coffee is what the younger set considers to be cool.

But what does drinking coffee at a young age do to kids? Keep reading to find out.

The Truth About Coffee

Most of us consider coffee to be a harmless pleasure – a pick-me-up in the morning, something to enjoy during a break on the job with our co-workers, and certainly nothing to get overly concerned about.

What most people don’t realize, though, is that coffee is considered to be a psychoactive substance – in other words, something that works on your brain chemistry. It affects the way our mind works. It can also be psycho-addictive – in other words, we become dependent upon it, and if we don’t get it, we can experience withdrawal symptoms.

That’s what we know about the effects of coffee on adults. But what about kids?

We know that in adults, excessive coffee consumption can lead to sleeplessness, irritability, and jitters. But how does coffee affect kids? What are the effects of drinking coffee at a young age?

Here’s the short answer – we don’t know. And why don’t we know? It’s because there hasn’t been all that much research whether drinking coffee at a young age is harmful.

What we do know is that young people are the fastest growing demographic when it comes to drinking coffee. They also consume tons of sodas and energy drinks that contain caffeine, and the current research suggests that kids might be drinking well in excess of 500 milligrams of caffeine per day – the amount that is contained in about five cups of coffee. Is this too much? Probably.

Is It OK For a 12 Year Old to Drink Coffee?

The US Food and Drug Administration is the body that determines what is “safe” in terms of consuming foods and beverages. However, there has been so little research done on kids and adolescents when it comes to coffee consumption that there are no definitive answers.

What is known is that since the latter part of the 1970s, children and adolescents have begun to consume coffee at a startling rate – about 70% more than in previous years. Take this in context, too, that some kids use a lot more coffee than others. Also consider that studies also show that kids who drink a lot of coffee may also indulge in higher-risk behaviors (more on that later) and that they may also drink a lot less of really beneficial beverages like milk and fruit juice.

But is drinking coffee at a young age all that harmful?

Maybe not … unless you factor in the behavioral issues and potential for addiction that can go hand in hand with excessive coffee consumption.

How Does Your Brain React to Coffee?

Remember those old ads from the 1980s? The ones that showed you an egg, and then an egg in a frying pan, and the commentary went “This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?”

Well, let’s talk about your brain on coffee.

The fact is, coffee is a stimulant, and it can affect your mood, your attention span, and how you react to outside stimuli. Caffeine can actually lower your heart rate, increase your blood pressure, and affect your behavior.

If this sounds bad, it isn’t necessarily. Caffeine has been proven to improve cognitive performance. So if you’ve ever pulled an “all-nighter,” studying late in preparation for an exam, you were probably doing the right thing at the right time. Coffee, in that context, accentuates positive results. The only trouble with that is, what goes up must come down. So you get the coffee boost, and then you get the crash once the caffeine rush wears off.

We shouldn’t have to tell you that a nice, level way of living is probably best, and that coffee highs and lows are not all that wonderful. That said, though, the chances of coffee rushes followed by crashes actually killing you is probably slim to none. They’re just not all that desirable. And, as is the case with most stimulants, coffee consumers do tend to develop a certain level of tolerance – meaning that they end up needing more coffee to achieve the initial rush. Then, the inevitable crash is even worse, and the tendency is to “cure” the crash with even more coffee.

Is Coffee Addictive?

You may also have heard one or more of those coffee-swilling kids you’ve noticed saying things like “I am so, like, addicted to coffee!” But is that really true?

There is a lot of controversy surrounding whether or not coffee is truly addictive. The DSM-5 does not consider excessive use of coffee to be an addiction per se, but does recognize a condition called “caffeine use disorder.” It further identifies the criteria for substance dependence as including:

  • tolerance
  • withdrawal
  • use in large amounts or over extended periods of time
  • inability to reduce use regardless of how much one may want to
  • excessive time spent obtaining the substance
  • other pleasurable activities ignored in favor of consuming the substance
  • continued use even in the face of health problems resulting from use.

According to the DSM-5, at least three of these indicators must be present in order for a diagnosis of “dependence.”

What does the research tell us about drinking coffee at a young age in terms of how it relates to addiction? Well, even though the research is still in its infancy, there have been a few studies done. One found that among coffee drinkers of all ages, 100% of regular consumers of caffeine show signs that they’re dependent on the brew.

Think about this, though – a finding of 100% pretty much has to indicate that the study is flawed, either in the methodology or in the accuracy of the responses of self-reporting coffee drinkers. If the researchers are proceeding by identifying the conclusion they want, and then structuring the questions to ensure that they get that conclusion, it’s bad science. If the participants are all people who believe that they are dependent on caffeine, then it’s still bad science. If the sampling of participants is limited to only a few… well, you get the idea.

Another study found that among 36 adolescents, a little over 22% showed signs of caffeine dependence. This is a figure that makes a bit more sense.

Studies have also been done on the effects of abruptly stopping caffeine use, and the findings suggest that withdrawal periods are brief and not all that problematic. Some researchers have even suggested that to call the effects of stopping caffeine use “withdrawal” in any real sense of the word trivializes the withdrawal symptoms that can result from stopping the use of cocaine, heroin, alcohol and other addictive substances. However, this also has to be taken in context. These studies were done using adult participants, and the argument can be made that drinking coffee at a young age can lead to a faster onset of dependence, and worse symptoms when the use is stopped than those that occur in adults.

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Can You Become Immune to Caffeine?

One of the most problematic effects of substance dependence is that the user often develops a tolerance to the substance. In other words, they need more and more of the substance over time in order to achieve the same effect that was achieved when they first began using it.

Maybe you’ve heard of people (or maybe you are one of those people) who can drink a cup of coffee immediately before bedtime, and still drift right off to sleep. This is an example of tolerance. It’s not “immunity” as such – it just means that the consumer’s body has become so used to caffeine that the effects are markedly reduced.

People who drink coffee only once in a while will usually report that they feel jittery if they consume too much. Regular users hardly ever report “the jitters.” Does this mean that they’re immune to the effects of coffee?

No, it doesn’t. They report not feeling jittery, but they almost invariably report that they feel more energetic after having a cup or two of coffee. So the effects are still there, but some of them are less pronounced, or even absent. Most studies have found that the participants range from low tolerance to high tolerance, and with a lot of variation between the two.

Drinking Coffee

What about drinking coffee at a young age? Do adolescent consumers develop a tolerance?

The jury is out on this one, mainly because many of the studies are flawed. One study, for instance, didn’t even consult adolescent coffee users – instead, they consulted the parents, who reported that their kids were restless and fidgety when they consumed coffee. What kind of mood were the parents in when they were consulted? Were some of them angry with their children and more likely to complain about their behavior, perhaps? Also, what was going on in addition to the coffee consumption? Were there other reasons for the kids to be fidgety? Were they bored or stressed? What else was going on in their lives?

As of the time of this writing, there have been no really good studies done on the effects of caffeine on children.

Can Coffee Use Lead to Serious Addictions?

Does a cup of coffee seem more enjoyable if you have a cigarette along with it? Do Facebook and a beer both give you more pleasure if they go together? This is the flip side of tolerance – enhancing the effects of one substance or practice by combining it with another. In the beginning, this may simply be adding one pleasure to another, and that’s known as “cross sensitization” – using two substances and/or activities that both stimulate the same pleasure centers in the brain. When you feel that you absolutely can’t enjoy/do one without the other, though, that’s cross addiction.

So, can drinking coffee lead to other addictions? Some studies suggest that the use of caffeine can actually alter certain properties of other substances. For instance, rats that are given caffeine, and allowed access to cocaine, tend to self-administer more cocaine than rats that are not given caffeine. Studies done on monkeys that are given both coffee and cigarettes show that they will smoke more than monkeys that are not allowed to have coffee.

How does this translate into human behavior?

We do know that for many people, coffee and cigarettes go together. Often, when trying to quit smoking, people report that the most difficult time, the time when they most want a cigarette, is when they’re enjoying their morning cup of coffee. As to drinking coffee at a young age, studies have shown that adolescents who consume caffeine are more likely to smoke. Taken together, what we know about coffee use and smoking in both adults and adolescents would seem to suggest that coffee can present a risk for cross addiction.

Interestingly, though, humans seem to differ from rats in that cocaine users are generally not heavy drinkers of coffee. So although there does seem to be a cross-addictive relationship when it comes to coffee and smoking, that same potential is not there when it comes to cocaine.

When it comes to drinking coffee at a young age, though, some researchers believe that early use of caffeine actually “primes” the youthful brain to be more receptive to the use of illicit substances. At this point, though, the relationship between coffee use and later substance abuse has not been fully researched – it’s just a theory, and not one that has been proven to have any validity.

That said, there are researchers who believe that drinking coffee at a young age can lead to increased cravings for even more stimulation. It may not even be properly classified as addiction – it’s more just one habit leading to another. Consider again the example of coffee going hand-in-hand with a cigarette. You have a cup of coffee and a cigarette in the morning – that’s your habit. Now, if you have a cup of coffee in the afternoon, and that’s not your usual practice, the mere act of having that cup of coffee could trigger the desire for a cigarette. Because coffee and a cigarette are so closely associated as part of your morning ritual, a cup of coffee at any time of the day might cause you to want to light up a smoke.

It’s the same with sugar – sweet coffee in the schoolyard before class is one thing. But if you have a donut at break between classes, the sugar in the donut might trigger you to want more coffee. And vice versa, of course.

It’s called “conditioned association.” You might not even be thinking about coffee, consciously, when you’re consuming that sugary treat, but your subconscious mind remembers, and prompts you to go get a cup of coffee. You might not think that you’re cross addicted, but there’s a part of your brain that thinks otherwise.

What Does Sugar and Caffeine Do to Your Body?

When considering the effects of drinking coffee at a young age, it’s worth noting that for many adolescents, caffeine and sugar go hand-in-hand. They’re likely to consume caffeine in the form of sugary sodas or energy drinks, for one thing. For another, it’s a rare teen whose palate is sufficiently mature to appreciate the robust taste of black coffee with nothing added in. Those kids you see in the schoolyard on the way to work are not drinking black coffee – they’re most likely using a lot of cream and milk, and a ton of sugar. It’s what pleases young taste buds.

Now, as to what we know about the use of caffeine and sugar in young people, it seems as though sugar and caffeine both activate “reward pathways” leading to behavioral changes. Essentially, the combination increases the production of dopamine – the “feel good” to a greater extent than it does in adults. What this meansis simply that kids get a better rush from sugary coffee than do adults. It does not mean that they are more likely to become addicted to either substance. Further, there is no evidence to suggest that drinking sweet coffee results in a preference for the combination of sugar and caffeine once the consumer reaches adulthood.

How Old Should a Child Be to Drink Coffee?

Should we really be worried about whether or not kids are drinking coffee?

Again, we have to remember that there aren’t all that many studies on the use of caffeine in children and adolescents, and those studies that do exist are pretty flawed, and don’t do a very good job of assessing the potential for harm, both physically and mentally, to young coffee drinkers.

It’s worth keeping in mind, though, that adolescence is the period when people typically develop very firm preferences when it comes to foods and beverages. So, if the rudimentary research is correct, and there is a connection between a desire for caffeine and a desire for sweet foods, one could make an argument to the effect that early coffee consumption could lead to some very bad choices, nutritionally, later in life.

It’s also worth noting that good nutrition and enough sleep are vital when it comes to proper growth and bone development. Caffeine can indisputably disrupt one’s sleep patterns, and if coffee is consumed to the detriment of other, healthy beverages, bone development is bound to suffer.

Perhaps the question should not be “How old should a child be to drink coffee?” but…

…How Much Coffee Should a Child Drink?

Nutritionally speaking, coffee should be considered a food, not a beverage. The conventional wisdom suggests that a child should not be drinking coffee before the age of 12, and then should only be allowed to consume about 225 milligrams of caffeine per day – as much as is in one cup of coffee.

Now, take that in the context that kids drink cola drinks and other sodas that contain caffeine, and energy drinks, and hot chocolate. The question then becomes not “How much coffee should a child drink?” but “How much caffeine should a child consume?” You have the answer – 225 milligrams, and it doesn’t matter whether that caffeine comes from coffee or from another beverage.

Is Coffee Bad for a Teenager?

It’s easy to think of a teen as just sort of a “young adult.” The thing is, though, that although their thought processes are rapidly approaching adulthood, their bodies are not. A cup of coffee a day isn’t going to cause any harm, but for proper bone development, kids of that age still need to drink a lot of milk. If your 13 year old wants a cup of coffee to get him or her going in the morning, it won’t do any harm. Just make sure that he or she consumes other healthy beverages.

Keep in mind that the teens are the time when your kids are growing in lots of ways – not just in terms of size, but when it comes to brain development. As we’ve already pointed out, over and over, the research isn’t all that good, and we don’t really know how caffeine can affect your child over the long term. We know that caffeine can affect sleep patterns, and can interfere with bone development. So if your child is drinking coffee to the exclusion of everything else, that’s not a good thing.

It’s also worth noting, as we suggested before, that coffee can lead the brain to be more receptive to illicit drugs and sweet foods. Again, the research is in its infancy, though, so the best answer here is probably this – you know your kid, so proceed accordingly.

Do Kids Respond Differently to Caffeine?

Again, the studies are flawed. Most studies are done on adults, and most involve administering doses of caffeine that are well beyond normal use – as much as 3x to 10x the normal use. In adults, this means that there will pretty much always be side effects. In kids, it means that these side effects will be exponentially ore severe. However, when the doses are adjusted to reflect normal body weight in both children and adults, there are not usually any seriously negative effects. High consumers, of course, report more adverse effects than low consumers, and abstainers report none at all.

It’s also worth mentioning that it’s not really known if caffeine use in adolescence has any effect on brain development. However, it is believed that neurological development continues well beyond the teen years, and that caffeine, along with other foods and beverages, can have a significant influence on the way that the young brain develops.

How Does Caffeine Affect Athletic Performance?

If you talk to teens about their coffee use, many of them are likely to tell you that they drink coffee because it helps them to perform athletically.

They’re not just stringing you a line.

Caffeine is actually known to improve the way that muscles contract, as well as reducing fatigue. In fact, caffeine is such a powerful tool when it comes to athleticism that the International Olympic Committee conducts urine tests to determine caffeine level, and if you’re over a certain level, then you’re not allowed to compete. Additionally, in high school athletes, 13% report that their coaches have encouraged them to use caffeine in order to improve their performance.

Whether we should be encouraging kids to drink coffee or other caffeinated beverages in order to improve their athletic performance is, of course, open to argument.

Can Coffee Stunt a Child’s Growth?

“You can’t have coffee,” your mom said. “It will stunt your growth!”

Was she right?

Well, it’s known that if you consume coffee, it can reduce your body weight. However, take this in the context that many studies on coffee use and body weight are also done using subjects that are already consuming a low-calorie diet. Also, take it in context that in people who are drinking coffee at a young age, many of the subjects are also using weight loss substances like ephedrine.

The other side to this is that drinking coffee can actually contribute to obesity in children. As we suggested before, coffee and sugar can go hand in hand. Pair a cup of coffee containing a ton of sugar with a sugary donut or other treat, and you have a calorie bomb just waiting to go off. Is your kid going to get fat? You bet!

Coffee alone isn’t the culprit when it comes to losing or gaining weight. Taken in the context of other consumables, and other habits, though, it most definitely can be a factor when it comes to body weight.

Most of the time, when it comes to weight gain in children, the real culprit is sugary beverages and treats. In fact, it’s known that kids who regularly drink non-diet sodas are most likely to have issues with weight. You also have to factor in the fact that parents who typically let their kids consume sugary drinks are generally less likely to monitor their children’s diets, and this kind of “leave it alone” attitude leads kids to do what they want to do – which is, given the young palate, to consume sugary foods and drinks.

What About Energy Drinks?

Would you believe that there is actually an energy drink called Cocaine™? There is. And it’s not even the worst one on the market. There are so many energy drinks out there that contain as much as five times the caffeine as you’ll find in coffee. And some of them are even advertised as being recommended for kids four years and older! Think about that for a minute – if your kids is slamming back these energy drinks on a regular basis, coffee is the least of your worries!

To compound the problem, in these energy drinks, not only is the caffeine level through the roof, they’re full of sugar. And the manufacturers suggest that this is a good thing, because sugar and caffeine together give you a huge energy boost! You have to wonder, too, why would a kid need to amp up their energy that way? If a child is enjoying a proper diet – one that contains lots of vegetables, fruits, lean meats and dairy – they should have plenty of energy without adding so much as a milligram of caffeine into the ix.

10 Things to Think About

1. Can a 4 year old drink coffee?

Why would you even ask this? Don’t 4 year olds have enough energy without adding coffee to the mix? Caffeine use in young children can also adversely affect bone development, so if your 4 year old is demanding a morning cup of java, be a responsible parent and say “No.

2. Can a 6 year old drink coffee?

Do kids this age even consume caffeine? Of course they do – they get it in chocolate. However, the recommended caffeine intake for a 6 year old is 45 milligrams per day. The average cup of coffee contains 225 milligrams. So no, a 6 year old should not be drinking coffee, unless it’s decaf.

3. Can a year old drink coffee?

At this age, kids are still a bit young, but realistically, they’re getting caffeine every day, often in significant amounts. They get it the same way younger kids do, in the form of chocolate, and also in sodas. You might think that if they’re not drinking cola drinks, they’re getting a pass on caffeine, but the reality is that a good many other types of soda contain caffeine, and often in higher amounts than you’d find in cola. Caffeine is caffeine, regardless of the source, so if a 12 year old wants a cup of coffee from time to time, it’s probably not the end of the world.

4. Can a 13 year old drink coffee?

See “Can a 12 year old drink coffee.”

5. Can an 18 year old drink coffee?

What age is right to drink coffee? As we’ve already seen, kids are consuming caffeine from very young ages. And from our perspective, if they’re old enough to vote, they’re old enough to decide whether or not they want to drink coffee!

6. Is coffee bad for you?

Just about anything, consumed in large quantities, can be bad for you. However, there’s nothing in the research to suggest that drinking coffee is harmful. If you over-indulge, you could end up with a nasty case of the jitters, but they’ll pass.

7. If I drink coffee, am I at risk of becoming a crackhead?

It’s highly unlikely. We’ve talked about cross addiction, but there’s really no evidence to suggest that coffee is any kind of a “gateway” substance that’s going to lead you down the path toward using other, far more harmful substances.

8. I love drinking coffee and checking my Facebook – am I cross addicted?

If drinking coffee while looking at cat videos and pictures of other people’s breakfasts makes you happy, we see no reason why you should stop doing so. Maybe you’re cross addicted and maybe you’re not, but it’s important to remember that most of the time, a true addiction does not make you happy at all.

9. Should I stop drinking coffee?

You should only stop drinking coffee if your doctor has told you to do so for health reasons, or if you do not find consuming coffee to be a pleasurable activity.

10. I let my kid drink coffee, but worry that she’s over-indulging. Any suggestions?

If it’s the “cool” factor that is driving your child’s passion for coffee, suggest switching to decaf – nobody will know that she’s not drinking the “real” thing. Decaf can also be helpful if you’re concerned that she might be coffee-dependent. Suggest combining ¾ of a cup of the genuine article with ¼ of a cup of decaf, then going down to half and half. Just make sure that she’s not increasing her consumption to offset the lack of caffeine in the blend.


It’s indisputable that drinking coffee at a young age is on the rise. Whether this is a good thing is debatable – we wonder how safe coffee use is among young people, and we know that the studies on the matter are flawed. We also don’t know whether it makes a difference when coffee is combined with sweeteners, and we don’t really know if the use of caffeine can lead to the desire to use other substances. We also don’t know how the use of caffeine affects mental and physical development in young people.

In short, we don’t know much of anything at all, because there is so little research.

However, what we do know, based on the existing research, is that there is nothing to suggest that consuming coffee in one’s adolescent years is all that harmful. It’s likely not a “gateway” to other, really harmful substances. If you’re a young coffee drinker, that doesn’t necessarily mean that when you get older, you’re going to dive headlong into cocaine or heroin or other illicit substances. Maybe it just means that you like to try new things, or that you want to look cool and feel grown up.

Related Content:

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So, is drinking coffee at a young age harmful? For very young children, it can be. Toddlers should never be given coffee, and until a child hits his or her teens, it’s definitely best to err on the side of caution and keep coffee consumption to a minimum. You should also make sure that your kids aren’t over-indulging in other beverages that contain caffeine. The key is, of course, moderation. The occasional cup of coffee isn’t going to harm an adolescent, so if their desire for the brew is your biggest worry, fill up your own cup, and then sit down with them and talk about their day – you’ve got a good thing going!