Cheating Online Exam by Teen

Teen using phone to cheat on test..Mom wonders what to do next.

This is an image of a cellphone with a cymath equation posted on it.

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Cheating on an online exam? I walked into my daughter’s room when she was supposed to be taking a math test in Algebra II. She had her computer open but on her lap, sort of under the table, was her smartphone with notes. I’ve since learned (from other Moms) that kids go to a site called Cymath to get the solutions. She is a sophomore and needs to do well in this class to get into college, so I am torn whether to say something to her teacher. BTW, what makes it worse is that she goes to a religious high school associated with our synagogue. Roslyn, Encino

Dear Roslyn: First, realize that this is a small transgression in the schema of bad. You and your daughter are not going to go to jail like Loughlin Lough or Felicity Huffman, who schemed their way into your nearby school, University of Southern California.

So, begin with an open conversation. Tell your daughter what you saw but ask if you have the details straight. Have her explain what took place from her perspective. Did the teacher say it was an open book test, did her friends goad her to try it, or does she swear she never looked at notes or Cymath? Based on what I’ve read, I’m equally concerned about software that can surveil students when they take a remote exam and report false positives about cheating behaviors. You could insist that next time your daughter take an exams it’s in open seating so you can monitor (the opposite of ‘Go to your Room Now’ as punishment). However, that is not enough.

It’s Academic

Instead, try to explore the pressures that lead your daughter to this poor decision. Make sure that she gets academic help and gains the confidence she needs to do well in this subject material. Yes, you might need to ask her teacher for help, enroll her in an outside on-line math program, or seek out a tutor, if you can afford it. Or, do all of the above. You must show your daughter that her integrity, hard-work, and good conduct are what matter.

I am cutting your daughter some slack because I wonder if we all take online short-cuts during this time of Covid.  There are adults who sit in their pajama bottoms, teens who are flipping screens and playing a computer game or two, and Zoom meetings where we turn off video so we can be virtually present, but are ‘not.’ In this instance cheating will not get your daughter expelled, but it is a signal that something is amiss and you, as a parent, must look in the window to make adjustments.

If not, she may get into college in two years because she has gotten good enough math grades, but then lack the foundation and skills that are necessary to keep up there and succeed. Kids, exams, and cheating are not a particularly new problem. However, the smartphone adds complexity to the equation (no pun intended) if our students slip through the cracks without learning the material but still give the right answers.

Is Smartphone Making Me Worried Sick?

Checking for Covid results on email brings even more angst with the avalanche of email messages…

Worried from messaging on phone? Pacific Lutheran University sends its community reminders of a daily wellness check in on their phones.
Worried sick from messaging? (graphic courtesy of PLU)

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Is my phone making me sick? I got very worried last week while waiting for the results from a Covid test.  My health center sends out the results by email. So, I kept opening and checking email on my phone to see if it had arrived. Then, each time I went to email, it felt like there was an avalanche of other messages I had to read or respond to. That made me feel even more worried sick! The Covid test came back negative (thankfully) but I am wondering how to tame this email habit I acquired.  Soren, Walnut Creek 

Dear Soren: Glad to hear you are well. Surely it was useful to know the results of your Covid test quickly, particularly if you were feeling under the weather or planning a visit with other people. But, suppose that the result had sat in your inbox for a few hours, instead of checking as soon as it got posted. Would finding out a few hours later have changed things, or made you less worried-sick?

Now, prepare to get scared by the numbers, as the phone tells all! There’s a quantitative way to see how much your phone use increased last week.

On an IPhone (iOS 12 or later) go to Settings and then Screen Time (for Android, look here). Then, under the chart that shows daily activity, scroll far down. There you will find a section that visualizes the number of times you picked up the phone each day, and further report time on the individual apps you used, like email! 

Not So New…

But, back to your question, which was submitted, no surprise, by phone! You make a good point that one behavior, namely checking for a specific message, “begets” another behavior, like doing more email. However, the anxiousness brought on waiting for vital information is not new:  think about time spent waiting for a test-score to arrive in the mail or the nervousness when your doctor’s office tries to reach you over the phone about surgery dates. What is new is that smartphones have no time-constraints so they feed and spiral the angst as we wait for updates or news.

Taming the EMail

With regard to email, analyze how much you need to  use it. There is a recent review that suggests trying Slack or Chat . But, it’s not clear- these platforms might just switch your time use to a different channel, one that emphasizes social, one paragraph content. One latent problem is that using Slack could keep you in an ‘always-on’ status with friends or colleagues.

A different approach is to go on an email diet.  While you continue to check it via your phone, you commit to writing and responding to messages just once or twice a day. On weekends, you try out an email Sabbath. 

Taming the Speed

I used to have a co-worker (whose name I shall not speak aloud) who said that only organ transplant candidates and surgeons needed to check their phone messages around the clock.  In that case, speed matters and lives could be spared.

As early as 2012, Pew Research found that nearly a third of phone and tablet users checked their phones throughout the day for breaking news, and not during a specific time of the day (say before 8 am. or from 5 to 9 pm). So, reflect on what the speed of knowing gets you.  Does the speed feed an ever-growing mound of angst?

Speed will not always be an advantage and time away from our phones may compensate in terms of well-being. You learned this week, gratefully, that well-being, is everything. Thanks for writing.

Should Kids Use Phone on Break?

Learning pods are supposed to replace socialization and school….is the phone adding distance?

Young children studying in a pod  like classroom during Covid virus. At each desk there is  computer and desks are 6' apart.
Daily Herald, photo by John Starks 8/25/2020

Dear Ms Smartphone: Should kids use their phones during a break? This fall my daughter is in a learning pod with seven other middle-school students. It seems to be going well, and I think that she will be prepared for high school next year. The issue I have is that the instructors allow the pod kids to take out their phones during the breaks between classes. There are multiple breaks during the shortened school day. In our normal school, the kids cannot use their phone until the end of the day. Do you think I should say anything?  Sharin, Berkeley

Dear Sharin: These are interesting times and I am glad that you were able to locate an instructional pod for your student. For pods, the equity issues have been substantial, along with access to technology and the Internet. You raise yet another important issue about these makeshift classrooms.

If the students use computers for most of their lessons, I would argue that they need a break from the screen. It is important that they refresh their eyes, refresh their minds, and seek out personal interactions, at a six foot distance, of course.  Taking a short stroll or engaging in some physical exercise would be a great alternative to spending more time with online games or search. 

WhAt is the Attraction?

Second, you need to question what students do online, the online sites they visit, between classes. Since they are in seventh or eighth grade, question whether they are spending time on social media like Tik-Tok or SnapChat. You might look at your daughter’s posts, if you have access. Looking over her “digital shoulder” and getting access is vital at this age. But, it begins with a collaborative discussion and her perspective on her podmates, free-time, and how the pod functions during breaks. 

According to Pew Research 33% of teens note that it is simply easier to connect with a friend online than to attempt connecting with them physically. There are two instructional things that parents must do: one is to show kids how to disconnect in order to connect, and second, we need to teach the tools of digital literacy. Is this pod facilitating either?

Speak Up!

So, you might take this up directly with the lead instructor- ask for some time “after class” to discuss media use. You mentioned that there was more than one instructor, so they might have inconsistent enforcement or rules. Most likely you and the other parents that hired these teachers first agreed on the curriculum.  So, also reach out to the other parents in your pod. And, hopefully you will all be back in your regular classroom soon.