February 27, 2005 | University Communications

A new study by a Brigham Young University professor found that the fraction of 18- to 25-year olds who consider themselves adults have a better sense of their overall identity as well as what type of person they want for a romantic partner. They are also less depressed and engage in fewer risk behaviors such as illegal drug use, drunk driving and unprotected sex.

"This very small minority of 18-to 25-year old Americans stand out because they perceive themselves as adults at an age when the majority of their peers do not," said Larry Nelson, assistant professor of marriage, family and human development at Brigham Young University. "We wanted to find out just how they differ from their 'emerging adult' peers."

Reported in new issue of the Journal of Adolescent Research (vol. 20, no.2, March 2005), findings from the 232 individuals surveyed indicate that the two groups do not differ in the criteria they use to determine adult status. However, the perceived adults believe they have fulfilled the criteria to a greater extent than their emerging adult peers in every area. Criteria included internal and individualistic qualities such as taking responsibility for one's actions, independent decision-making and financial independence from parents.

"No longer are the days when marriage or embarking on a career automatically make you an adult," said coauthor Carolyn McNamara Barry, assistant professor of psychology at Loyola College in Maryland. "Young people today use more internal and individualistic qualities as their mile markers. Perceiving oneself as an adult coincides with making progress towards resolution of one's identity."

According to the study, perceived adults had already explored the question, "Who am I?" Answers to their exploration gave them a stronger sense of who they are and they also had a better idea of the type of person they wanted for a long-term romantic relationship. On the other hand, emerging adults are still asking the same question. They are in a state of "moratorium" -- active identity exploration with little commitment, the researchers wrote.

As emerging adults attempt to discover their identity, they report moderate levels of depression.

"There are several things that may contribute to depression among emerging adults," Nelson said. "Some may struggle with insecurities and negative self-perceptions as they try to figure out who they are. They are experiencing separation in various forms from break-ups with romantic partners to distancing themselves from their parents. They may also experience increased loneliness as they begin to leave home but have not yet formed other long-term committed relationships."

Results from the study demonstrate that perceived adults and emerging adults can be distinguished by their behavior. Perceived adults claimed to engage in fewer risk behaviors such as drug use and drunk driving. In the eyes of the perceived adults, adulthood appears to be reflective of more mature behavior.

"Our results support the notion that issues of independence, identity exploration, depression and risk behavior are all characteristics of emerging adulthood; while gaining independence, resolving their identity, reporting less depression and decreasing participation in risk behaviors may signify the departure from emerging adulthood into young adulthood," McNamara Barry said.

Writer: Tonya Fischio