Youth Ethics

 – By Chris Wagner
©2008, The Center for Parent/Youth Understanding

Every two years the Josephson Institute releases a study titled “Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth.” Data from the 2008 study became available in late November and the results portray a growing problem with the moral fabric of today’s young people. What follows is a snapshot of some of the results from this year’s survey administered to nearly 30,000 high school students across the country.

Encouragingly, it seems as though having strong morals and being of good character are ideals teens highly regard. However, there is a disconnect between what they say and how they act.

The first set of figures below represents the positive side of the survey results. They demonstrate the perceived notion that having high moral character is important to teens.

  • 98% agree “it’s important for me to be a person with good character.”
  • 96% believe “it’s important to me that people trust me.”
  • 84% say they agree with the statement, “It’s not worth it to lie or cheat because it hurts your character.”

The following examples, unfortunately, begin to show dis-integration between thought and actual behavior.

  • Though 98% of high schoolers agree that, “In personal relationships, trust and honesty are essential,” 82% also admit to lying to their parents about something significant within the past year. And, 23% have stolen something from a parent or relative, and 20% from a friend within the past year.
  • This divide can be seen in the classroom as well, where 40% of teens believe, “A person has to lie or cheat sometimes in order to succeed.” And though only 21% agree with the statement that, “People who are willing to lie, cheat or break the rules are more likely to succeed than people who are not,” 65% have lied to a teacher and 64% have cheated on a test within the last year.

Interestingly, teens do not notice—or are unwilling to concede that though they may lie, cheat and steal—these actions are harmful to their personal character and what others may think of them. Despite the many grievances they confessed during the survey, 77% agreed with the statement, “When it comes to doing what is right, I am better than most people I know.” You could argue then, that teens believe it is a bigger issue when others lie, cheat or steal, than when they do it themselves. Perhaps they don’t hold themselves to the same standards as their peers.

In the summary of their findings, the Josephson Institute noted that the bleak picture painted in the survey actually may under report how bad things really are regarding the ethical behavior and honesty of today’s high school students. This is because 26% of respondents admitted to not answering all of the questions in the survey with complete honesty. They conclude that, “experts agree that dishonesty on surveys usually is an attempt to conceal misconduct.”

What can parents, youth workers and educators do to begin redirecting the moral compass of today’s youth? CPYU offers the following suggestions:

Parents—Children begin learning at a young age from the example set by their parents. Be sure the behavior you exhibit is in line with what you teach. If you teach your children that lying is bad and goes against God’s standards, but then model behavior that stretches the truth or tells white lies, you only will be reinforcing the disconnect mentioned in these survey results. Instead, teach them God’s standards at a young age and then model that behavior yourself. Show them how to integrate faith into all areas of life. Be honest about your own inconsistencies with your teens, and lovingly point out theirs as well. Use the opportunity to discuss Paul’s words in Romans 7 to show that struggling with sin is a constant battle, but be sure to help your teen work toward Paul’s answer and declaration (vs. 25) from the question he poses in verse 24.

Youth workers—The survey results demonstrate our fallenness and the truth of Romans 3:23. However, teens seem to see little wrong with their current behavior. Use the findings as a starting point for a youth group lesson that teaches teens about our sinful nature. Help them see that Christianity isn’t about a list of do’s and don’ts. If this were so, we all would be without hope. Help them discover God’s grace provided through his son Jesus Christ. Paint the broad picture of God’s story and how he calls us into it through a relationship with Jesus so that our own stories can find significance. Outside of this story, especially in today’s postmodern culture where people believe truth to be relative, there is little reason or motivation to live a life of high moral conduct. Rather, by seeking God and working to advance his kingdom we are compelled to make better choices and reflect behavior that is pleasing to God. As you help teens live out these truths, they not only should begin making better ethical choices, but they also should be honest with themselves, realize when they fall short, seek forgiveness and strive to make improvements.

Educators—Media plays a huge role in shaping the ethical behavior of today’s young people. CPYU has created a 3(D) approach to media consumption that can be used and taught in classroom settings within the public school system. Teachers are encouraged to use this resource as a way to help teens align their ethical ideals with the media choices they make. Copies of Minding Your Media: A 3(D) Guide to Making Responsible Media Choices can be obtained through CPYU’s online resource center at A free downloadable Teacher’s Guide is also available. (Note: CPYU also recommends that parents, youth workers and Christian school teachers use the related resource How To Use Your Head To Guard Your Heart: A 3(D) Guide To Making Responsible Media Choices with teens. More information, including a free downloadable Leader’s Guide, is available on our Web site.)

More detailed survey results can be found at


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For more information on resources to help you understand today’s rapidly changing youth culture, contact the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding.