Parents have always suspected it, and now a scientific study has backed them up by showing that dating, sexual activity and drugs do make teens feel older than they really are.
Researchers at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, along with researchers at the University of Victoria, carried out the study.
As a part of the study they surveyed a random sample of nearly 700 adolescents between 12 to 19 years of age from a medium-sized North American city and asked them questions about dating, sexual experience, smoking, alcohol and drug use.
The participants, males and females, were also asked how old they felt compared to their same-sex peers. Survey results indicated that, as is typical for teens, the sample felt older than their chronological age.
Kelly Arbeau, a doctoral student in psychology at the University of Alberta and co-author of the study, said that the results had shown that specific behaviours do have an effect on adolescents and how they act.
“We found that specific behaviours do have an effect on adolescents’ self-perceived age. For example, having an older dating partner seems to give a teen a higher subjective experience of age,” she said.
Such behaviours include sex at a young age, smoking and indulging in substance abuse,
“Sexual experience is unequivocally the realm of adult behaviour. So, when teens are having sex and their peers aren’t, it can make them feel more adult, more mature than their non-experienced counterparts,” she said,
Smoking (in boys), higher alcohol use and higher drug use were also related to an older subjective experience of age (SEA).
These results suggest an increasing discrepancy between SEA and chronological age across the teen years as young people experience the normative changes associated with adolescence.
People in their 20s feel about the age they are or slightly older, but after age 30 and into old age, the average person has an SEA that is younger than his or her chronological age. Adolescence is the only point in the lifespan during which individuals consistently feel older than they are chronologically.
As for the popular wisdom that girls mature earlier than boys, the results of the study seem to support that, with girls more likely to feel older than are boys. This may shed some light on why companies are more likely to target teen girls than teen boys with products once considered only for adults.
The study appears in the June 2007 issue of the Journal of Adolescence.