by Sarah McGowan, TT Writer and Producer

For now, many school halls around the country are quiet. No hurried footsteps, no metallic banging of lockers, no cacophony of voices. But in just a few days, a blistering pace will begin for both students and the adults who work with them.

Our schools are leading a double life: as teachers, counselors and school administrators everywhere prepare their classrooms, curriculum and facilities for a new school year, teens are preparing to face the social pressures that will push many of them into crisis.

Focused on academics and test scores, schools are the place where most teens will feel the pressure to drink, take drugs, have unwanted or unprotected sex, develop eating disorders and flirt on the edge of depression and disaster (see our Fast Stats below for more information on these risk behaviors).

Poised perfectly on the brink of a massive developmental and social growth spurt, millions of middle and high school students will begin to develop their sense of self within society in the very place that often provides few opportunities to understand the physical, emotional and social changes they are experiencing.

According to data collected from the American Time Use Survey between 2003 and 2006, school is where these youth will come to spend the majority of their waking life – more than they will spend at home interacting with family (indeed, fewer than half will eat dinner with their parents), more than anywhere else that will guide, shape and influence them before they meet the challenges of life beyond high school. In these halls, quads and classrooms, teens will learn how to interact with others, face the swelling tide of peer pressure and prove to either be a leader or a follower.

Many will be bullied, pressured and excluded, but few will ever voice their pain, share their truths or be defended by their peers. Most of their struggles will become invisible. Why? Because in the race to improve test scores, cope with crippling budget cuts and fight teacher burnout, our schools are failing to provide teens the opportunity to learn the critical life skills that will compel them to do the right thing for themselves and others.

Interviewed for the next TEEN TRUTH movie, The Truth about Nothing, eminent social psychologist, engineer of the historic Stanford Prison Experiment and founder of the Heroic Imagination Project, Dr. Philip Zimbardo, says being socially engaged and responsible for the change one wishes to see is learned. “In order to undercut the power of evil, [you have to teach] kids to understand why they do what they do and teach them how to do little things everyday on the path to heroism.”

The harsh reality is that society rarely encourages youth to lead, favoring compliance over dissent. Even as adults, most of us fail to intervene, ignore the pain or distress of others and justify our inaction so as to not feel the internal pressure when we know we’re doing something wrong. Requiring obedience, we reward compliance, but then wonder why so few youth stand up and speak out when they see injustice like bullying occur. In effect, we blame them for the apathy that we all help create and sustain.

“Intimidation, bullying and hazing will always take place,” says veteran educator Clint Wilkins. With over 30 years in the field as a teacher, administrator and founding charter school principal, he says he was often the last to know when bullying took place on his campus, “but the kids always knew,” he says.

As Zimbardo found with the Stanford Prison Experiment, even normal people can come to do extraordinarily terrible things under the right circumstances. Along with the work of many other social psychologists, his compliance research showed that none of us are exempt from the powerful forces of the situation, especially not those who are blind to the social influences at play in our environments – be they at home, at school or at work.

So what are our school environments and cultures creating? Students who are prepared to creatively solve problems and create social change? Or students who will submit to the number one evil facing campuses everywhere and society at-large: apathy?

The good news is surprisingly simple: knowledge is key. Wilkins says it only takes 15 minutes to introduce youth to the psychological principles that will set them on the right path by providing them with an outlet for what he calls a “very important developmental need to change the world for the better and act on their idealism.” He agrees that lessons on the Bystander Effect, diffusion of responsibility, and the power of dissent can be taught through virtually any academic topic and certainly in any academic setting. “Kids are idealists at heart,” he says. “If you give them the opportunities to build those muscles, they will do so.”

As the school year approaches, we’re making it our mission at TEEN TRUTH to show teachers, administrators and school site personnel just how easy this important and fundamental change to school culture can be.

“Knowledge of these social and psychological phenomena,” instructs Zimbardo, “is not simply for general use, it’s about social action, because once you know, you can’t say you didn’t know.”

The silver lining is enormous. “Kids are primed for this,” Wilkins says. “If you create a safe haven, students will pass it along from one generation to the next.”




Learn how you can introduce these important concepts to teens in easy-to-use lessons by BUYING THE BOOK: “Teen Truth: Why Youth Have Something to Hide.” With compelling personal stories from our experiences on the road, research-driven data that illustrates key concepts of social psychology, and applied exercises that allow youth to explore why we do what we do, our book offers a recipe for change and blueprint for building safer schools and healthier communities.

To learn more about Dr. Zimbardo, Clint Wilkins and their Heroic Imagination Project, visit