A startling new study from the Josephson Institute, an ethics think tank in Los Angeles, reveals that 64 percent of today's high school students report having cheated on a test in the past year, while 30 percent have stolen from a store.

This data comes from an extensive survey the Josephson Institute conducted of 29,760 students at 100 randomly selected high schools across the nation. Since students answered the questions anonymously, they presumably had less reason to lie on the survey than they do to lie, cheat or steal in class or in malls.

Another disheartening statistic_ About a third of students reported they plagiarized material from the Web and passed it off as their own.

Here's the really concerning part, though. Despite obvious character weakness in these high schoolers (taken as a group), an astounding 93 percent reported being satisfied with their ethics. Seventy-seven percent agreed with the sentiment that they are better at doing "right" than most people they know.

We are fast becoming a nation unrestrained by truth. The weakness of character in teenagers is only the latest symptom of a willingness to lie that permeates our culture. This pathology is getting worse, generation-by-generation, and I believe it represents a threat to the American family, the rule of law and our economy. It is the Trojan Horse amidst us, from which can pour an epidemic of fiction that ultimately cripples our ability to truthfully and effectively address our very real problems.

Think about it. Our nation witnessed the bursting of the Internet bubble, which occurred partly because we accepted the fiction-the lie-that companies need not be valued according to their earnings. It mattered more how compelling a "story" could be told about the company's future. We have witnessed the explosion of the housing bubble, based on a collective willingness to lend money to those who lacked sufficient credit and to bundle murky assets together into such nebulous financial instruments that they could float high into the sky and gather like storm clouds. We have become immune to politicians saying one thing and doing another. Scandals now need to be very compelling drama to move us at all.

The fuel for this affliction of fiction-of lying-is, I believe, a ceding of our real life experience and real character to the manipulation of real-life by technology (including the Internet) that have the potential to disconnect people from their thoughts and feelings, as well as entertainment (including some reality television programs and films) that blurs the boundary between reality and fantasy. I'd throw in the proliferation of special effects in entertainment, the use of computerized games that invite our children into simulated realities, our addiction to athletes and actors who act out badly, and the burgeoning and unrestrained use of prescription medications that sometimes create too much distance from real emotions (while insight oriented therapies are abandoned).

We need a national program to address how we can return to our core selves, including our instincts about what is right and what is wrong. The proper place for this preventive psychological medicine is the schools. But the proper timing for implementation has to be as early as kindergarten.

Only through a concerted effort to maintain our grip on truth and reality and character and decency will they be rescued.

Dr. Keith Ablow is a psychiatry correspondent for FOX News Channel and a New York Times bestselling author. His newest book, "Living the Truth: Transform Your Life through the Power of Insight and Honesty" has launched a new self-help movement. Check out Dr. Ablow's website at

livingthetruth.com

or e-mail him at

info@keithablow.com

.

Dr. Keith Ablow is a psychiatrist and member of the Fox News Medical A-Team.