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Finally legal: what it means to be an adult around the world

In Australia, turning 18 is often a big deal. Not only emotionally and for your parents and family, but also legally. All of a sudden, overnight, you are legally allowed to do almost as you please.

But is it all good news? And what does it all really mean? We spoke to Dr Bosco Rowland of Deakin’s School of Psychology to get his opinion on the topic.

What it means to be an 18-year-old Australian

As an 18-year-old, you are assumed to be somewhat independent, responsible and self-sufficient. On the day you legally become an adult, you’re allowed to purchase alcohol and cigarettes, gamble away your savings at the casino, apply for credit to buy a house, marry your high school sweetheart, and in Victoria, discover the freedom of mobility by getting your driver’s license.

Dr Rowland believes turning 18 means big changes. It marks the time when we are also legally allowed to participate in a number of political and social activities. ‘Adolescence is associated with numerous physical, biological, and mental challenges and these effect adolescents in different ways,’ he says.

Spreading out the fun

Some countries, such as the USA, disperse these allowances over a few years. Although they can drive at 16, and vote and establish credit at 18, Americans cannot legally drink until they are 21.

In other countries, teens must go through coming of age rituals and certain rites of passage to demonstrate they are mature and ready enough to be granted the title of adult.

Dr Rowland states that while he believes it may be difficult to do, changing the legal drinking age to 21 in Australia would make sense. He also believes doing so may assist in nurturing a healthier community, one that places less of a burden on the health system.

‘There were states that changed the law a number of times, 18 to 21 to 18, and the evidence shows, that greater alcohol-related harms with adolescents were associated with drinking age,’ he says.

So, have the Americans got it right?

'Adolescence is associated with numerous physical, biological, and mental challenges and these effect adolescents in different ways.'

Dr Bosco Rowland,
School of Psychology, Deakin University

Coming of age traditions around the world

Although in Australia turning 18 symbolises the end of childhood, other cultures celebrate impending adulthood in other ways.

In the Brazilian Amazon, young boys need to wear a glove filled with angry bullet ants for 10 minutes several times over many months to prove they can withstand the pain, thus demonstrating they are ready for manhood.

In some parts of South America, young girls celebrate their ‘Quinceanera’ when they turn 15 with a mass renewing their baptism vows before having a fiesta with family and friends.

The Japanese believe 20 is the age where a youth becomes a mature, contributing member of society. They attend a traditional coming of age festival known as Seijin-no-Hi where they dress up in their finest attire, attend a ceremony and are treated to gifts and parties. Only then are they allowed to do the things we in Australia are allowed to do at 18.

Dr Rowland believes that while rites of passage or coming of age rituals sound impressive in theory, the best way to help a child transition into adulthood is to form and strengthen constructive bonds with positive role models. Dr Rowland suggests that one way for young people to do this is to ‘Develop bonding relationships with important people in their lives and help them to get involved with activities that are about giving to the broader community and world.’

Under the influence of others

Dr Rowland explains that the majority of underage children who drink alcohol are given this alcohol by a parent. Interestingly, a recent Deakin study has found that the decline in the amount of teenagers participating in underage drinking is partly due to a reduced inclination of parents to supply alcohol. ‘Thus, parents can play a major role in educating their children and preventing them from harm,’ he warns.

He goes on to outline that things like smoking and drinking are not actually illegal under the age of 18 in Australia, but it is illegal for minors to buy these items. He then explains that the role then falls to families and schools to educate young adults. ‘Most people do not know that alcohol is usually linked to about 60 cancers, and that drinking under the age of 18 can impact on the developing adolescent brain,’ he says.

Dr Rowland says that even though many people would have drunk alcohol or smoked before turning 18, the legality of these activities once they come of age may lead to ‘child in a lolly shop’ kind of behaviours. ‘Thus, it is important to educate from an early age the harms associated with long- and short-term consumption of alcohol,’ he says.

Some 18-year-olds tend to adopt an invincible air when granted all these new legal and social allowances, but Dr Rowland is quick to remind us the importance of positive role models to bond with and seek council from. ‘We are never too old to ask for an opinion or thoughts from someone we respect and value,’ he explains.

Regardless of what the legal age is in your country, or if your culture celebrates a traditional rite of passage into adulthood, one thing seems to remain consistent across all countries: becoming an adult should represent independence, responsibility and freedom from restrictions previously enforced by your elders. Though there doesn’t seem to be one tried and tested way to establish and ensure this is the case.

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Dr Bosco Rowland
Dr Bosco Rowland

Senior Research Fellow, School of Psychology, Deakin University

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