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EDITORIALS: THE SATURDAY PAGE

Teens like us

October 14, 2006

MICHAEL JOSEPHSON, that "Character Counts" character with those ubiquitous radio commentaries and that eponymous institute of ethics, has polled teenagers and once again found them to be liars, cheats and thieves. In other words, they're horribly ... well, just like the rest of us.

Josephson has been surveying high school students about ethical behavior every two years since 1992, and this year he's grousing, justifiably, that they're just as morally unattractive as they were 14 years ago. Three-fifths said they cheated on a test within the last year; a third used the Internet to plagiarize an assignment; 62% lied to a teacher. Outside of class, they're hardly better: A little more than a fourth said they stole, and 57% said they'd lied to their parents. At least twice.

That's outrageous. Only 57%? Were these kids lying on the survey? As it turns out, 27% admitted doing exactly that, which probably means that the rest were lying about lying about their lying.

Think back, if it's not too painful, to adolescence. Did you ever make it through an entire year -- or an entire month -- without at least a few juicy untruths to Mom and Dad about where you'd been and what you'd been doing? For that matter, the pesky family dog who's been eating homework all these years has been alive longer than most Americans.

Some of us are so old that we didn't have the Internet. But when reports were due, plenty of kids handed in barely reworded (we preferred the phrase "carefully edited") passages from the Encyclopedia Britannica.

No doubt imitating the words they have heard from parents and teachers, high schoolers say ethical behavior is crucial. Three-fourths boast that they are far more upstanding than most people they know. At least they have a strong sense of self-esteem.

Yet many adults are equally self-deluding. We cluck at the public wrongdoing of others while we try to convince the IRS that our Salvation Army donation of used underwear was worth $150. (It's a good thing editorials are written anonymously.)

We can bemoan the misdeeds of teens, and indeed they're troubling. But before we disdain adolescents too fast, we should remember that, luckily for us, Josephson doesn't do a similar survey of adults.

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