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.

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.

Should Teen Remove TikTok?

A Mom is wondering where she and her teen stand on this issue….

A juxtaposition of the tik-tok corporate logo and a tick-tock kid's toy clock from Fisher Price.
TikTok: not your average learning toy !

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Should my teen remove Tiktok from her phone? During the lockdown she and her best friends have been getting together and making up choreographed dances. It’s a lot of fun and I love being their audience. The app has helped us keep active and share things. Even though we like it,  I am concerned by what I read. It doesn’t seem good and I don’t want her to have spyware on the phone. Should I ask my teen to take the app off her phone, or am I just having a knee-jerk reaction? Madeline, Novato

Dear Madeline: This one is above my pay-grade, as the expression goes, so I will just offer some general comments. I am reading and watching the same stories as you.


I would use this occasion as an opportunity to talk about social media with my teen. The political fray gives you a chance to remind them that social media is more complicated than the plot of ‘Games of Thrones.’ On the Internet, nothing is permanently private, and what teens post, in drips and drabs, (ie, their digital exhaust) could become a permanent record. That might not seem so important in ninth grade, but it could become a liability for employment later on. Moreover, postings can be manipulated and changed without direct permission. Kids seem to naturally understand the idea of song covers- most of the time a musical reinterpretation (the cover) is creative and good, but it could be juxtapositioned for bad.

You, or the Algorithm?

The second issue I would discuss with my teen is the “pop stardom” that might lure them to TikTok. Music, dance, and humor come naturally, and getting that 15 seconds of fame is like, well, getting into an Ivy League school, but better. When you commit to social media, you also feel obligated to package and promote yourself. But, sometimes, it’s not about us, but rather, about the the algorithm; how does it know just what to show you and when? Whatever your teens social investment in  TikTok, there will be new venues to be conquered: just this week Instagram announced Reels, a brand new video feature.

As we grow more accustomed to smartphone technology and become more sophisticated with it, apps like TikTok might appear very primitive. Slapstick comedy is often an entry point during the infancy of a medium. Do readers, or their grandparents, remember vaudeville performances at movie theatres or Alan Funt’s “Candid Camera” on television? One source says that TikTok is like future social media in which the least amount of effort is expended to be a content creator with a shot at viral fame or at least a few laughs.

You, or Where you Go?

So, while the content may be simple or funny, the underlying app may not be. The content is delivered within a smartphone (aka computer) that could potentially be advanced, at the data collection and surveillance level. In reading why India banned TikTok, it was ostensibly because Indian soldiers were involved in a crash with Chinese troops in the Himalayas. We civilians don’t know whether the app was tracking the soldiers’ movement through hidden code or whether this an international row motivated by political tensions, the economy, or something else.

One of the issues that goes unsaid in social media is that the content and posts of individual users is probably not that significant to providers- but information harvested from their devices could be. It’s a plus when we want to track Covid, but dangerous in other situations. A malicious app could contain code that extract the names of contacts, recent phone activities, the usage of other apps and more.

It’s hard to read the clock-face of TikTok, but it does make sense to talk though these ‘timely’ issues with your teen and listen to what she has to say. No doubt teens are one step ahead, neither turning to Microsoft or Instagram, and instead, trying out brand new platforms.