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If your teenager stole a car, how would you react? After the fury, fear and frustration died down—you'd still be upset. Similarly, if your tween shoplifted, you'd lay down the law. Why? Because stealing is wrong. You know it. Your kids know it. And Exodus 20:15 doesn't mince words.

But a 2004 Barna survey found that 80 percent of teens had engaged in some form of music piracy during the previous six months—including burning CDs for others, uploading music files to share online, or illegally downloading tunes from peer-to-peer music sharing sites. Other studies have since claimed that the percentage of piracy among teens is even higher.

If your kids are among them, chances are it's not been out of malicious deceit, but simply because they've never considered the issue from a moral perspective.

An Era of Moral Ambiguity
This ethical nonchalance among teens is almost predictable when you consider that their generation is one of the most morally ambiguous ever. In fact, Barna discovered that fewer than 1 in 10 Christian teenagers thinks music piracy is wrong. And a mere 1 in 3 teens aware that it's wrong is fully convinced. Meanwhile, 65 percent of Christian youth say music piracy isn't a moral issue.

Maybe this uncertainty is due to piracy's perceived "harmlessness," confidentiality and prevalence. The practice is generally void of consequence and so common that it no longer shocks those who participate in it. Some teens have even grown up watching piracy occur, and as a result, don't agree that a creative idea can be owned and sold. After all, they've been taught since preschool to share their possessions. Isn't a music file or playlist just another possession?

Less than one half of one percent of the nearly 1,500 teens Barna surveyed said a youth pastor or church leader had ever talked about music theft with them. Just 11 percent had heard about it from their parents. Most teens' opinions on piracy are based on their peers' laissez-faire attitudes. Is it any wonder, then, that a recent British study from the University of Hertfordshire found that 61 percent of most teens' music collections is in copyright violation?

"It's like skipping class," said one college student, "everyone knows it's wrong, but everyone does it. I still buy CDs and concert tickets. It's not like I'm trying to cut down the industry."

But if the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry is to be believed this is the primary reason that global record sales have fallen about 30 percent since 2004. In fact, it's been estimated that a third of all music listened to worldwide is illegally downloaded.

Time for the "Piracy Talk"
If you've never addressed piracy with your teen, don't scold yourself. Chances are you weren't even aware of the problem, widespread though it is. Now that you know more, however, how do you talk to your kids? Helping them understand the spiritual and financial impact of piracy is a major part of preventing it.

First, don't expect them to automatically accept that piracy is wrong. Several famous musicians have even muddied the waters by coming out in favor of it, arguing that it ultimately increases sales and the size of their fan base. In 2007, the band Radiohead shocked the industry by offering legal downloads of its seventh studio album for whatever fans thought it was worth. Including nothing. And nothing is exactly what 62 percent of people paid for it. Of the 38 percent who did lay out some cash, the average payment was $6.

"Radiohead's revolutionary move sparked a fierce debate in the industry," wrote Plugged In associate editor Adam Holz. "On one side are those who believe passionately in the real value of music, people who feel that Radiohead's choice has wrongly legitimized the idea of downloading tunes for free. On the other are those who are convinced that the movement toward free digital music distribution is a foregone conclusion."

Though such celebrities are in the minority, their voices have been loud enough that your teen has probably heard them, and might even view this as a grant of permission.

Rather than approaching piracy from a music angle, consider using a tack that's closer to home. If your child likes to draw or paint, ask how she would feel if her favorite work of art were covertly copied and hung in a stranger's home. What if the thief enjoyed the art every day at no cost, despite the fact your daughter put weeks of effort and supplies into the project? Or if your son is a good student, ask how he would feel if someone reproduced the research paper he'd slaved over for two months, then earned an A for it without giving your son any credit.

If teens realize that their favorite musicians have used their own skills and resources to create enjoyable songs, they may also realize that the artists' labor and ingenuity deserve financial compensation. After all, they need to eat, too! Although some teens might argue that Beyoncé and Miley Cyrus already make "too much" money, that's not the point. Integrity is the focus here. Besides, many artists earn only a fraction of the price of each song or album. The bulk of the profits go to nameless, faceless, hard-working people—including retailers who sell the music at stores. Ask your teen how your family would be impacted if someone stole from your wages.

Time magazine writer Lev Grossman highlights piracy's illegality, saying, "Click by click, file by file, we are tearing the entertainment industry apart. Quietly, with no sirens and no breaking glass, your friends and neighbors and colleagues and children are on a 24-hour virtual smash-and-grab looting spree, aided and abetted by the anonymity of the Internet."

Published April 2010