Ethics and Teens: Is It Possible to Detect Troubled Youth?
Alicia McDermott


The purpose of this project was to investigate the difference in moral ethics between teenagers attending high school and teens in juvenile detention facilities. The subjects included two hundred and thirty-six teens (164 from high schools and 121 from a juvenile detention facility). These teens were given a questionnaire, created by the student researcher, with twenty different, typical moral dilemmas and three different ways to solve each dilemma. The three possible answers to each dilemma were classified as having a “self-centered”, “judgmental”, and “caring” point-of-view. It was hypothesized that the subjects attending high school would present a caring perspective on the majority of the moral dilemmas while the incarcerated subjects would average a highly self-centered point-of-view.
The subjects chose one of the three ways to solve each moral dilemma, based upon what they thought was the best way to resolve each situation. The “Self-Centered” answers indicated those who were more concerned with how their actions affected themselves rather than others. The “Judgmental” answers indicated those who tended to be more critical of the actions of others. The “Caring” answers indicated those who put others feelings before their own. Although there were no right or wrong answers for each dilemma, the “Caring” answers were created to be the opposite of the “Self-Centered” answers.
The completed tests were divided into “Male” and “Female” high school students and “Male” and “Female” juvenile delinquents. The answers were then collated by question and subdivided into one of the three possible categories explained above.
While the hypothesis was correct for the females, it proved incorrect for the males. Female juvenile delinquents proved to be significantly more “Self-Centered” than the high school females, high school males, and juvenile delinquent males.
This test was created with the idea that simple ethics could be used to identify potentially troubled youth for early, targeted intervention. Future research would include the refinement of the test by validation. Other factors such as race, greatest influences, and number of parents in the subject’s home could be included to investigate how or if those factors contributed to the ethical decisions of the subjects.


Human beings have the ability to make decisions about right or wrong and about good and bad, or otherwise known as decisions about morality. Morality can be defined as a person’s attitude about a situation, which evaluates it, so as to decide if it is right or wrong. These attitudes about morality develop over time, throughout a person’s life.
For decades psychologists have studied morality, moral development, and how people become troubled. Lawrence Kohlberg, a Harvard psychologist, labeled the moral development of human beings from the early infant years to late adulthood. Hartshorne and May, conducting one of the early studies in the late 1920’s, evaluated the influence of religion, education, and society on young children. The one test used in the early prediction of troubled youth is the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory-Adolescent (MMPI-A) assessment. This test helps identify personal, social, and behavioral problems in adolescents. Although MMPI-A test helps provide relevant information to aid in problem identification, it is a very extensive test and takes several hours to complete.
With such incidents as the Columbine tragedy, school shootings, and the increasing number of incarcerated youth, people are searching for a way to target these troubled teens before they commit serious crimes to offer them counseling and support. In “Ethics and Teens: Is It Possible To Detect Troubled Youth” everyday moral dilemmas such as stealing, cheating, and lying are used to challenge the ethics of each subject. Each moral dilemma contains three solutions; each solution is based on either a “Caring”, “Judgmental”, or “Self-Centered” perspective. By testing subjects in local high schools and comparing their answers with the incarcerated subjects of state juvenile facilities, it is easy to compare the differences in perspectives from those who have already committed crimes, and those who have not.

Materials and Methods


The High School and Juvenile Delinquents were compared with each other. Significant differences between the two groups were evident from the initial analysis.

The results were then subdivided into Male and Female and analyzed to determine where the differences were. There was significant difference between the High School Female answers and the Juvenile Delinquent Female answers. In fact, almost all of the differences between the two groups could be traced back to the Females.


This experiment provided some interesting results. Preliminary analysis showed significant differences between High School students and Juvenile Delinquents. While both groups’ answers were more “Caring”, Juvenile Delinquents answers were more “Self-Centered” than High School students.
While proving my hypothesis was incorrect in general, I was able to determine that there is a measurable difference in moral ethics between High School students and Juvenile Delinquents in general, and among Females in particular.
A number of additional steps are to be taken with the data. First the survey will be revised and improved using a standard validation process. A board of people who work with teens and ethical issues will review a new survey of 30 moral dilemmas. This board will consist of psychologists, teachers, parents, counselors, and youth pastors. They will rate each moral dilemma and solution on a scale of one to five. The twenty highest rated dilemmas and solutions will be put on a new test. Factors such as gender, race, greatest influences, and number of parents in the home will also be tested in a multivariate statistical analysis to investigate if they have an impact on the ethical decisions of teens.


Future research of this project might include:

With further refinement, it may be possible to develop a test that can be used to perform “early detection” of potential Juvenile Delinquents. This would also allow early intervention efforts to be more “targeted” rather than using a shotgun approach to prevention.


• Jennifer and Mark McDermott • Rader Juvenile Correctional Facility • Ms. Jackie Russell (Rader) • Mrs. Mary Beth West (GFCS) • Mr. Rodriguez (Victory) • Mrs. Lana Yates (Union High School) • Ms. Brena Belovich (TCC – Statistical Analysis)

• Texas Youth Commission – (TYC) • Janie McDermott (TYC) • Mr. Chuck Jeffords (Director of Research, TYC) • Dr. David Wakefield • Dr. Gerald Ellison • Mrs. Mary Lou Martin (Psychology Professor)


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Are you : Male Female


Circle the answer that you believe you would choose if you were in each situation.
1. Bob is sitting at a table, that is not his own, drawing on a piece of paper. After a while he starts expanding his drawing all over the table.
Your thoughts on this are:
A. He is drawing over someone else’s property, which is not polite.
B. Paper is for drawing, tables are not. He should draw on the paper or not at all.
C. What difference does it make? Let him express himself!

2. Julie sits down and insists she wants only cookies and candy for lunch everyday.
Your thoughts on this are:
A. She needs to eat more than cookies and candy to be healthy
B. She shouldn’t be made to eat anything she doesn’t want.
C. She should eat some of everything. It is rude for her not to taste what is served.

3. David has been going over to where fellow students are building blocks. He waits till he sees someone’s building beginning to grow taller then he knocks down their building, kicking the blocks everywhere.
Your thoughts on this are:
A. He shouldn’t be knocking down other people’s buildings like that. Someone could get hurt.
B. He shouldn’t knock down other people’s buildings. He didn’t build them they did.
C. Let him knock down the blocks, after all, they are going to get knocked down anyway.

4. John has a rock that he picked up outside and is throwing it from one hand to another nearby some other kids.
Your thoughts on this are:
A. He should stop throwing it around, if he doesn’t catch it in time, it might hit someone and hurt them.
B. It is fine when he is by himself but when he gets closer to the other children he should stop.
C. He is just throwing it back and forth, that’s not going to hurt anyone. Why shouldn’t he be able to do that.

5. There are three bicycles available to ride, but all three are in use at the moment. Marie comes over to Jessica and asks if she could ride her bicycle. Jessica says “No! I want to ride it all day!”
Your thoughts on this are:
A. Jessica should tell Marie to go ask someone else for the bicycle. After all, she’s not the only one that has one.
B. Jessica shouldn’t be so selfish, she should give Marie a turn on the bicycle.
C. Jessica had the bicycle first and should be able to do what she wants and continue until she’s finished.

6. Megan is running around in her friend’s house when she knocks over a vase.
Your thoughts on this are:
A. She should hide it.
B. She should apologize and pay for the vase.
C. Do nothing.

7. Jay walks into a candy store and steals some candy, later that day he is feeling guilty about what he did.
Your thoughts on this are:
A. Jay should return the candy.
B. Jay should eat the candy, but pay in the morning.
C. Jay should eat the candy, it would be too much trouble to go back to the store.

8. Anna is sitting by Mary, the smartest girl in the class. Anna forgot to study for the quiz that day and Mary’s answers are visible. Anna decides to cheat by copying Mary’s answers.
Your thoughts on this are:
A. Anna should leave the situation alone: she hasn’t had a good grade in a long time.
B. Anna should tell the teacher and ask if she could take the test over again
C. Anna should tell the teacher and receive the F she deserves.

9. Lisa works at a local restaurant. Her best friend Alyssa comes in one day and asks Lisa to give her a burger for free because she had no money with her.
Your thoughts on this are:
A. Lisa should give Alyssa a burger, one burger won’t hurt the company.
B. Lisa should tell Alyssa she can’t because she’s not supposed to.
C. Lisa should just pay for Alyssa’s burger on her own.

10. James is playing around with scissors when he ends up cutting his mom’s new dress.
Your thoughts on this are:
A. James should tell his mom that the dog did it.
B. He should admit to his mom that he cut up the dress and apologize.
C. He should hide the dress and hope she doesn’t find it.

11. Your best friend forgot that he had a final today. During the test you notice he is copying down answers from your paper
What would you do?
A. Cover up your paper but don’t say anything about your friend cheating.
B. Forget about it. You wouldn’t want to risk not having a friendship because you told on him.
C. Tell the teacher. Even though it is your friend, cheating is cheating.

12. You are playing baseball with some friends when all of a sudden a ball you hit breaks a window of a nearby car. No one is around.
What would you do?
A . Sneak away and make sure no one notices that you left so you won’t get caught.
B . Keep playing ball with your friends and don’t do anything about the car, it was their fault they parked too close to a baseball field.
C. Leave a note on the car stating your phone number and what happened.