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Poll: Teens worldly but not cynical

They carry beepers, prefer tattoos to body piercing, and are just about as likely to take lessons in shooting guns as they are to play musical instruments. Four in 10 know someone who is homosexual, and 6 in 10 say distributing condoms in schools is a good idea.

American teens are a worldly generation marked by exposure to a culture that has dropped many of its inhibitions, a poll of 13-to 17-year-olds conducted by the New York Times and CBS News finds.

Yet the same poll suggests teens are as wholesome and devoid of cynicism as the generation that wore saddle shoes. They trust the government and admire their parents. Ninety-four percent say they believe in God. Strong majorities say they never drink alcohol and never smoke.

On sexual matters, almost half say sex before marriage is "always wrong" (53 percent of girls agree, and 41 percent of boys). Fifty-eight percent of boys and 47 percent of girls say homosexuality is "always wrong."

Fewer than 1 in 4 said they had ever had sex, but 71 percent said that "a lot" or "some" of the other students at their schools are having sex. Some of the same teens who say they disapprove of pre-marital sex also favor condom distribution in schools.

"People are going to have sex, and they should have protected sex," said Brett Adam Abel, a 15-year-old from Apopka who participated in the poll.

Only 2 percent said abortion or pregnancy was the biggest problem facing teens. Only 1 percent said it was AIDS. Yet 18 percent said they knew someone who had tested positive for HIV, had AIDS or had died of AIDS.

When asked to name the biggest problem faced by teens, 39 percent said drugs, about the same percentage as in a poll conducted the New York Times four years ago. The percentage who said that violence or crime was the biggest problem facing their generation has dropped from 22 percent in 1994 to 7 percent.

Still, when asked what they considered the biggest problem in their schools, violence was cited by 16 percent.

Guns are a normal part of many teens' lives. Nearly 4 in 10 say a member of their household owns a gun, and 15 percent say they own one. Thirty-one percent have had instruction in shooting

Defying another stereotype, 51 percent said they get along with their parents "very well."

On political issues, a majority approve of the way President Clinton is doing his job, and consider the Monica Lewinsky episode a "private matter" for the president.

The poll of 1,048 teens was conducted from April 2-7.