Every day, headlines announce more evidence that many of our young people are morally adrift.

One week, we read of an epidemic of sexually transmitted diseases among teens. The next, we learn that sweet-looking high school girls who worked at an Albert Lea nursing home allegedly abused residents there -- for "fun." We shake our heads in disbelief at news that a Lakeville teen and several young adults beat and tortured a mentally disabled man.

Two recent national studies confirm the depth of our kids' moral and emotional confusion.

The first study found that nearly 20 percent of young people ages 19 to 25 have a mental health condition serious enough to interfere with everyday life -- including antisocial conduct and depression. The second study reported that 30 percent of U.S. high school students say that they have stolen from a store, and 64 percent that they have cheated on a test, in the past year.

Here's the most disturbing fact: 93 percent of the students questioned in the cheating study said they were "satisfied with their personal ethics and character."

In 2003, a groundbreaking report sounded alarm bells about this escalating meltdown in child and adolescent well-being. Titled "Hardwired to Connect," it offered a surprising diagnosis. The report was produced by the Commission on Children at Risk, a joint project of the Dartmouth Medical School, the YMCA of the USA and the New York-based Institute for American Values.

"In the midst of unprecedented material affluence," declared the report, our young people are suffering from an "epidemic of mental illness, emotional distress and behavioral problems" that includes anxiety, substance abuse, suicidal thoughts, sexual promiscuity and eating disorders.

What has gone wrong? The commission began with a vital question: How do human beings develop a moral compass and strong character in the first place? Instead of answering from a therapeutic or "treatment" perspective, it started by examining the latest brain science.

According to the report, recent brain research indicates that children require two kinds of connections to flourish. First, they need strong, stable bonds with family and adults in the larger community. Second, they need a vision of life that offers meaning and purpose.

Our kids are failing to thrive, in good measure, because the social institutions that used to provide both kinds of connections have weakened in recent decades.

Attachment lays foundation

The family plays a vital role in moral development. An infant's attachment to its mother and father is biologically based and lays the foundation for future moral development, according to the report. Children deprived of stable, loving maternal bonds may exhibit symptoms ranging from "poverty of feeling for others" to a tendency toward deceitfulness and theft.

Fathers also profoundly influence their offsprings' development. For example, for girls, living with their biological father tends to slow the onset of puberty, while living with an unrelated adult male -- such as a mother's boyfriend -- tends to speed its onset.

Human beings' second "hard-wired" need for connection is -- in the report's words -- a "built-in capacity and drive" to "reflect on life's ultimate ends." Children seem biologically primed to ask "Why am I here?" and "What should I do with my life?" If they fail to find satisfying answers, they may turn to self-destructive behavior.

Today, widespread divorce and out-of-wedlock child-bearing are eroding the connections that kids need to flourish.

The report puts it this way: "Me first. Instant gratification. What have you done for me lately? These are ... slogans of a social environment in which all connections to others, even including marriages, are increasingly viewed as contingent, nonpermanent and prospectively short term."

To rescue our youth, we need to strengthen the groups and institutions -- from Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts to churches and synagogues -- that "live out the types of connectedness" that today's children increasingly lack.

The most important of these is the family -- the foundational human institution. If we are serious about saving our children, we will start there.

Katherine Kersten • 612-673-1774 kkersten@startribune.com Join the conversation at my blog, www.startribune.com/thinkagain.