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Survey paints troubling picture of U.S. teens

SUMMARY: A recent telephone survey of 375 boys and 375 girls, ages 12 to 17, shows that moral relativism is alive and well among American youth.

The study, sponsored by Junior Achievement and Deloitte, reveals that many young Americans find violence, lying, stealing and cheating acceptable behavior. These findings suggest a difficult environment for ethical behavior in today’s schools and tomorrow’s workplace.

A world of compromised values?

The study indicates almost 40 percent of students believe they must break some rules of behavior to succeed in school. Many students admit violence toward another person and cheating are part of their behavior patterns.

Done in the Past Year


Lied to a parent or guardian


Illegally downloaded music


Behaved violently toward another person


Cheated on a test




Stole from a store


None of these


This behavior mirrors what teens find acceptable. More than one in four youth see violence as permissible with almost 20 percent putting cheating in the same category ethically.

How Acceptable Do You Consider

Sometimes/Often Acceptable



Lying to a parent or guardian


Illegally downloading music


Behaving violently


Cheating on a test


Plagiarizing someone else's work


Stealing from a store



Revenge: the fourth “R”?

Approximately 27 percent of students view violence as sometimes acceptable. Among those, 35 percent see violence as appropriate to settle an argument, while 34 percent see violence for revenge as permitted. An undercurrent of violence to gain status or simply for the thrill also surfaces in the poll.

When Violence Toward Another Is Acceptable


To defend yourself


To help a friend


To settle an argument


For revenge


Because you dislike them


To gain respect


To be feared


Peer pressure


For a thrill



Stealing from a store different from illegal downloading

The vast majority of young people consider stealing from a store unacceptable; yet, almost half of teens confess to illegally downloading music. Reasons teens give for illegal downloads suggest they do not consider this activity as theft. They find it easy to do (79 percent), acceptable with their friends (38 percent) and something they have done for years (39 percent).

Parents as role models

More than half of the respondents (54 percent) point to their parents as behavior role models, with only 3 percent saying they get their behavioral standards from clergy or other religious leaders. About 13 percent of those surveyed said their friends serve as their role models. If their friends—or parents—do not reflect appropriate standards, these teens may exhibit behavior that will lead to problems in later life.

Teens feel accountable to themselves for behavior

Almost two out of three teens (65 percent) say they are most accountable to themselves for their behavior, followed by accountability to parents at 21 percent. These findings, combined with a self-reported environment of unethical behavior, raise additional concerns about their future behavior in schools and workplaces.

Looking to the future

Almost 80 percent of those surveyed indicate they feel prepared to make ethical decisions in the workforce, including 77 percent of those who admit to violence. David W. Miller, professor of business ethics at Princeton University, commented, "It is highly troubling that so many teenagers have a self-image of ethical readiness and the confidence in their ability to make good decisions later in life, yet at the same time freely admit to current behavior that is highly unethical.”

More information on this survey can be found here: Deloitte Teen Ethics Survey

Implications for families and churches

The Junior Achievement study suggests many young people are not getting the guidance they need to establish standards in ethical behavior. While parents and Christian values formerly controlled children’s moral education, many teens see their peers, schools or others as setting the boundaries of acceptable behavior. Even families who teach and uphold moral boundaries may find their children influenced by others who lack proper teaching or role models. Pastors may want to discuss the research findings with parent groups to encourage them to guide and support youth who face moral choices in a difficult, if not hostile, ethics environment.