How Teens Use Technology to Cheat in School

Female high school students using mobile phone during the class.
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When you were in school, teens who were cheating were likely looking at a neighbor’s paper or copying a friend’s homework. The most high-tech attempts to cheat may have involved a student who wrote the answers to a test on the cover of their notebook.

Cheating in today’s world has evolved, and unfortunately, become pervasive. Technology makes cheating all too tempting, common, and easy to pull off. Not only can kids use their phones to covertly communicate with each other, but they can also easily look up answers or get their work done on the Internet.

In one study, a whopping 35% of teens admit to using their smartphones to cheat on homework or tests. 65% of the same surveyed students also stated they have seen others use their phones to cheat in school. Other research has also pointed to widespread academic indiscretions among teens.

Why Teens Cheat

Sadly, academic dishonesty often is easily normalized among teens. Many of them may not even recognize that sharing answers, looking up facts online, consulting a friend, or using a homework app could constitute cheating. It may be a slippery slope as well, with kids fudging the honesty line a tiny bit here or there before beginning full-fledged cheating.

For those who are well aware that their behavior constitutes cheating, the academic pressure to succeed may outweigh the risk of getting caught. They may want to get into top colleges or earn scholarships for their grades. Some teens may feel that the best way to gain a competitive edge is by cheating.

Other students may just be looking for shortcuts. It may seem easier to cheat rather than look up the answers, figure things out in their heads, or study for a test. Plus, it can be rationalized that they are "studying" on their phone rather than actually cheating.

Teens with busy schedules may be especially tempted to cheat. The demands of sports, a part-time job, family commitments, or other after-school responsibilities can make academic dishonesty seem like a time-saving option.

Sometimes, there’s also a fairly low risk of getting caught. Some teachers rely on an honor system, and in some cases, technology has evolved faster than school policies. Many teachers lack the resources to detect academic dishonesty in the classroom. However, increasingly, there are programs and methods that let teachers scan student work for plagiarism.

Finally, some teens get confused about their family's values and may forget that learning is the goal of schooling rather than just the grades they get. They may assume that their parent would rather they cheat than get a bad grade—or they fear disappointing them. Plus, they see so many other kids cheating that it may start to feel expected.

It’s important to educate yourself about the various ways that today’s teens are cheating so you can be aware of the temptations your teen may face. Let's look at how teens are using phones and technology to cheat.

Text Messaging During Tests

Texting is one of the fastest ways for students to get answers to test questions from other students in the room—it's become the modern equivalent of note passing. Teens hide their smartphones on their seats and text one another, looking down to view responses while the teacher isn't paying attention.

Teens often admit the practice is easy to get away with even when phones aren't allowed (provided the teacher isn't walking around the room to check for cellphones).

Storing Notes

Some teens store notes for test time on their cell phones and access these notes during class. As with texting, this is done on the sly, hiding the phone from view. The internet offers other unusual tips for cheating with notes, too.

For example, several sites guide teens to print their notes out in the nutrition information portion of a water bottle label, providing a downloadable template to do so. Teens replace the water or beverage bottle labels with their own for a nearly undetectable setup, especially in a large class. This, of course, only works if the teacher allows beverages during class.

Copying and Pasting

Rather than conduct research to find sources, some students are copying and pasting material. They may plagiarize a report by trying to pass off a Wikipedia article as their own paper, for example.

Teachers may get wise to this type of plagiarism by doing a simple internet search of their own. Pasting a few sentences of a paper into a search engine can help teachers identify if the content was taken from a website.

A few websites offer complete research papers for free based on popular subjects or common books. Others allow students to purchase a paper. Then, a professional writer, or perhaps even another student, will complete the report for them.

Teachers may be able to detect this type of cheating when a student’s paper seems to be written in a different voice. A perfectly polished paper may indicate a ninth-grade student’s work isn’t their own. Teachers may also just be able to tell that the paper just doesn't sound like the student who turned it in.

Crowdsourced sites such as Homework Helper also provide their share of homework answers. Students simply ask a question and others chime in to give them the answers.

Social Media

Teenagers use social media to help one another on tests, too. It only takes a second to capture a picture of an exam when the teacher isn’t looking.

That picture may then be shared with friends who want a sneak peek of the test before they take it. The photo may be uploaded to a special Facebook group or simply shared via text message. Then, other teens can look up the answers to the exam once they know the questions ahead of time.

Homework Apps and Websites

While many tech-savvy cheating methods aren’t all that surprising, some methods require very little effort on the student’s part. Numerous free math apps such as Photomath allow a student to take a picture of the math problem. The app scans the problem and spits out the answers, even for complex algebra problems. That means students can quickly complete the homework without actually understanding the material.

Other apps, such as HWPic, send a picture of the problem to an actual tutor, who offers a step-by-step solution to the problem. While some students may use this to better understand their homework, others just copy down the answers, complete with the steps that justify the answer.

Websites such as Cymayth and Wolfram Alpha solve math problems on the fly—Wolfram can even handle college-level math problems. While the sites and apps state they are designed to help students figure out how to do the math, they are also used by students who would rather have the answers without the effort required to think them through on their own.

Other apps quickly translate foreign languages. Rather than have to decipher what a recording says or translate written words, apps can easily translate the information for the student.

Talk to Your Teen

The American Academy of Pediatrics encourages parents to talk to teens about cheating and their expectations for honesty, school, and communication. Many parents may have never had a serious talk with their child about cheating. It may not even come up unless their child gets caught cheating. Some parents may not think it’s necessary to discuss because they assume their child would never cheat. 

However, clearly, the statistics show that many kids do engage in academic discretions. So, don’t assume your child wouldn’t cheat. Often, "good kids" and "honest kids" make bad decisions. Make it clear to your teen that you value hard work and honesty.

Talk to your teen regularly about the dangers of cheating. Make it clear that cheaters tend not to get ahead in life.

Discuss the academic and social consequences of cheating, too. For example, your teen might get a zero or get kicked out of a class for cheating. Even worse, other people may not believe them when they tell the truth if they become known as dishonest or a cheater. It could also go on their transcripts, which could impair their academic future.

It’s important for your teen to understand that cheating—and heavy cell phone use—can take a toll on their mental health, as well. Additionally, studies make clear that poor mental health, particularly relating to self-image, stress levels, and academic engagement, makes kids more likely to indulge in academic dishonestly. So, be sure to consider the whole picture of why your child may be cheating or feel tempted to cheat.

A 2016 study found that cheaters actually cheat themselves out of happiness. Although they may think the advantage they gain by cheating will make them happier, research shows cheating causes people to feel worse.

Establish Clear Expectations and Consequences

Deciphering what constitutes cheating in today's world can be a little tricky. If your teen uses a homework app to get help, is that cheating? What if they use a website that translates Spanish into English? Also, note that different teachers have different expectations and will allow different levels of outside academic support.

Expectations

So, you may need to take it on a case-by-case basis to determine whether your teen's use of technology enhances or hinders their learning and/or is approved by their teacher. When in doubt, you can always ask the teacher directly if using technology for homework or other projects is acceptable.

To help prevent cheating, take a firm, clear stance so that your child understands your values and expectations. Also, make sure they have any needed supports in place so that they aren't tempted to cheat due to academic frustrations or challenges.

Tell your teen, ideally before an incident of academic dishonesty occurs, that you don’t condone cheating of any kind and you’d prefer a bad grade over dishonesty.

Stay involved in your teen’s education. Know what type of homework your teen is doing and be aware of the various ways your teen may be tempted to use their laptop or smartphone to cheat.

To encourage honesty in your child, help them develop a healthy moral compass by being an honest role model. If you cheat on your taxes or lie about your teen’s age to get into the movies for a cheaper price, you may send them the message that cheating is acceptable.

Consequences

If you do catch your teen cheating, take action. Just because your teen insists, “Everyone uses an app to get homework done,” don’t blindly believe it or let that give them a free pass. Instead, reiterate your expectations and provide substantive consequences. These may include removing phone privileges for a specified period of time. Sometimes the loss of privileges—such as your teen’s electronics—for 24 hours is enough to send a clear message.

Allow your teen to face consequences at school as well. If they get a zero on a test for cheating, don’t argue with the teacher. Instead, let your teen know that cheating has serious ramifications—and that they will not get away with this behavior.

However, do find out why your teen is cheating. Consider if they're over-scheduled or afraid they can’t keep up with their peers. Are they struggling to understand the material? Do they feel unhealthy pressure to excel? Ask questions to gain an understanding so you can help prevent cheating in the future and ensure they can succeed on their own.

It’s better for your teen to learn lessons about cheating now, rather than later in life. Dishonesty can have serious consequences. Cheating in college could get your teen expelled and cheating at a future job could get them fired or it could even lead to legal action. Cheating on a future partner could lead to the end of the relationship.

A Word From Verywell

Make sure your teen knows that honesty and focusing on learning rather than only on getting "good grades," at all costs, really is the best policy. Talk about honesty often and validate your teen’s feelings when they're frustrated with schoolwork—and the fact that some students who cheat seem to get ahead without getting caught. Assure them that ultimately, people who cheat truly are cheating themselves.

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14 Sources
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