Jim is 16 years old and pretty much in control of his life.

His dad is more like a buddy than a parent. And his mom never bugs him.

Oh, sure, they are concerned occasionally that Jim seems a bit more shy than other kids his age, that he has few outside interests and friends.

But his parents reassure each other than he'll soon outgrow that shyness.It's only a phase he's going through. He'll snap out of it by the time he gets to college.

Maybe so, but according to Dr. Nicholas A. Cummings, president of the American Psychological Association (APA) and chief psychologist for Kaiser-Permanente health-care system in San Francisco, Jim is a prime recruit for the swelling ranks of religious cults.

"And cults, unlike traditional religions, can become a great menace, a great danger," Dr. Cummings said. "You see, a cult takes on the philosophy of its leader -- he becomes a quasi-god. And should that cult leader become psychotic or corrupted by his own power, then the cult itself can very quickly turn violent."

Dr. Cummings' concern about the growing influence of cults on American youth is echoed by other psychologists presenting technical papers on the subject this week at the APA's 87th annual convention here.

One APA symposium is billed as a "psychological autopsy" of the grisly mass suicide engineered in Guyana last year by the Rev. Jim Jones.

Psychologist Jose I. Lasaga, Miami, Fla., said he believes that Jones' followers were "desensitized" to taking poison because they lived in a "mini-totalitarian state."

And that's precisely the way all cults operate, said Dr. Cummings. "They brainwash their members -- isolate them from any kind of outside stimulation. Part of the price a person has to pay to join a cult is to cut his family ties and all contact with the outside world."

But what is the attraction for young people?

"Authority," Dr. Cummings responded. "It's that simple. In our permissive society, young people actually crave being subject to some kind of authority.

"Young people are seeking a 'structured' life. But too many parents have abdicated their authority. So have the schools. And we've spent the last 20 years smashing traditional religions.

"So where's a kid to turn? Where's he to find the discipline he craves? If he's susceptible, a religious cult."

Dr. Cummings sees "permissive homes" as the first place to look in trying to understand the phenomenon.

"Far too many parents try to be more like a big brother or a big sister than a mom or dad," he said. "It's easier for them to be a 'buddy.' And, as a result, the youngster gets no direction.

"Secondly, a youngster has to feel accepted by his peers. He has to be 'in' with a group. So, if the youngster seems withdrawn, isolated, that's a warning sign.

"And, believe me, cults are more than willing to provide the authority these youngsters need, the sense of belonging they've never had."

Dr. Cummings pointed out that because some parents may not be able to recognize their own permissiveness they study their children for signs of "alienation from society" first.

"Then the parents should ask themselves when the last time was that they put their foot down over some unreasonable demand.

"When there's a teen-ager in the house, there are going to be a number of confrontations. And parents have to learn to stand their ground. That's not saying they should be rigid, inflexible. Sometimes they have to listen to the youngster and, perhaps, modify their views. But at some point they're going to have to be able to say: 'No!'"

Dr. Cummings also advises parents who fear their child has too few friends to "get them involved.

"Get closer to the child, provide a little more structure to his life. Encourage him to get involved in campus activities. Take him to church. Help him find institutions or organizations within the community where there are young people who will accept him.

"Remember, a child can have the best possible family environment -- but he still needs to be accepted by children his own age."

The dangers of raising children in a "permissive, semi-atheistic culture," said Dr. Cummings, are beginning to be recognized.

"New private schools -- most of them founded on the premise of religious training and authority -- are springing up at the rate of three a day. And there are a handful of states reinstituting forms of corporal punishment with very good results."

But the prime responsibility for putting "structure" in a child's life, said Dr. Cummings, rests with the parents.

"And they'd better start doing it now," he said. "If they wait until their kids are in a cult, they've lost them. The cult becomes their world. And the leader the mother-father figure."