Could Your Kid Be Cheating?

Fight High-Tech Cheating (Before It Starts)

A friend of mine was helping her daughter with her homework when they got to some challenging word problems that neither of them could solve. My friend's Facebook page was open, so she posted the questions to her friends -- and immediately received the answers. Problem solved? Hardly. When the results came through, it occurred to my friend: Am I cheating?

The ease and immediacy of digital devices -- cell phones, smart phones, Internet access, and social networks -- allow us to get answers quickly and efficiently without having to do a lot of work. And if it's a gray area for parents, it's really shady for kids.

A 2009 Common Sense Media poll revealed that lots of kids are doing exactly what my friend did. Plus, they're texting each other answers during tests, using notes and information stored on their cell phones during tests, and downloading papers from the Internet to turn in as their own work. And, while my friend felt conflicted, many students don't consider their actions to be cheating at all.

How do you make the shades of gray more black and white?

How to Talk to Kids About Cheating

1. Is it a shortcut or a cheat? A kid who knowingly tries to pass off someone else's work as his own is cheating. If he takes a shortcut -- say, doing research on Wikipedia rather than at the library -- that's an error in judgment about the trustworthiness of Wikipedia's material. In this case, kids should understand that Wikipedia isn't the same as an original source.

2. Is it a "cheat" or a gimme? The term "cheat" has become a part of the culture. Game developers plant "cheats" in their games to reward kids who are savvy enough to find out the cheat codes. But "cheat" in this case isn't really accurate. Games are intentionally designed with these built-in rewards to add an extra challenge. Kids should understand the distinction -- game cheats are a ploy, but there's no secret code that unlocks your homework.

3. Is it collaborating or cheating? Texting the answers to someone taking a test is cheating, and your child's school surely has a policy against it. But other forms of communication -- like collaborating via IM on Facebook with friends -- might actually be OK because they help kids work out problems together. As long as the teacher approves and your kids understand the ground rules around not stealing others' answers or giving away their own, a little IMing during homework time -- for help, not full-scale answer delivery -- is probably OK.

4. What technology is OK to use for school? Don't let the technology -- or the anonymity -- of some of these methods get in the way of talking about cheating. Cheating means taking credit for something you didn't do or giving your own answers away. Where and how it's done doesn't matter. Follow your school's policy on the use of digital devices.

5. How did you feel when you did it? That sinking feeling my friend had when her Facebook friends solved the word problems? That was her conscience. Kids have a sense of right and wrong, but they need a lot of reminders to do the right thing. One ally you have is kids' desire to make their own choices. In this case, the choice is literally in their hands. They can create an honest, open Internet and mobile world, or they can create one in which they'll always have to be suspicious of what they find and who they know.