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Teens Value Morality, But Will Bend Rules

by Jennifer Robison and Joseph Carroll

A 2001 Gallup Youth Survey* on teen morality contains plenty of good news for parents. U.S. teen-agers were asked for their feelings about honesty, cheating, lying and respect for others. The results suggest that the current generation of teens recognizes and admires positive character qualities, both personal and social.

Teens have definite ideas about what constitutes good character. To be a person of "good character," 43% put "honesty" at the top of the list, in an open-ended question. Seventy-seven percent (77%) strongly agree that "It is just as important in school to teach students to be honest, responsible, and respectful as it is to teach them reading, writing, and arithmetic."

Nonetheless, a substantial number of teens are willing to cut moral corners. Seventy-three percent (73%) say "I sometimes tell lies if I have to," and 44% of all teens admit to cheating on tests. Students are even more likely to cheat as they age. Thirty- seven percent (37%) of 13 to 15 year olds have cheated, compared to 53% of 16 and 17 year olds. Although that is a sizable number, there is good news to share -- this figure represents a decline of more than 22 percentage points since 1981, when two-thirds (66%) of teens admitting to cheating on tests.

Guilty or not guilty?

Parents will also be relieved to hear that, when presented with a list of morally challenging situations, teens are most likely to say they would feel guilty about neglecting their parents in their old age -- 92% of teens responded that way. "Lying to a friend" and "cheating on a test in school" would each be a source of guilt for about 80% of teens (81% and 77%, respectively). Premarital sex turned up last on the list, although most teens (59%) said they would feel guilty about it. Girls are more likely than are boys to say they would feel guilty about premarital sex, by a margin of 66% for girls versus 53% for boys.

* Results are based on telephone interviews with 454 teens, ages 13 to 17, conducted June - September 2001. For results based on this sample, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is +/- 5 percentage points.


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