cheating an a digital age

How Kids Are Cheating With Technology

Last Updated on October 18, 2023

We cannot trust kids’ grades anymore. With digital cheating out of control in our schools and colleges, grades have little to do with actual learning. How are kids cheating with technology?

The Chat GPT Bomb

Our school district prides itself in being one of the best in the country in teaching language arts. Our school works hard to make my children into good writers. It’s a long, slow and deliberate process that starts in Kindergarten and ends at high school graduation. 12 years that produce a functional human capable of independent thinking, deep analysis, and excellent essay writing. The result of a well designed curriculum, good teaching, and first and foremost – children’s own mental effort to read and write with gradually increasing complexity.

Now throw into works the ChatGPT bomb. It can write excellent essays in seconds without any effort from the students. The teachers will never know. No assistance from the human brain. No effort required on the part of the student. Kids no longer need to think. Just give the assignment to the AI and proceed to what is easy and fun, like video games and social media.

The hard mental work required for good writing is now optional. What do you get? Atrophy of the human brain. The result we should expect is exactly the opposite of the virtuous cycle in my kids’ school: young people incapable of independent thinking, deep analysis, and thoughtful expression. And as a side bonus – impatient and entitled to the rewards they have not earned.

The process of human development that worked for thousands of years has been disrupted by technology.

Humanity has been downgraded.

Cheating: Evolved

Cheating in the days of old meant copying answers from your classmate, hiding notes in your clothes, or even writing cheat sheets on your body. 

All of these tricks had been pretty easy for a vigilant teacher to spot. 

In the digital world, academic cheating has evolved – and teachers are struggling to control it. Some are giving up. Some do not care. 

For students, the risk of getting caught is low. The perceived rewards, on the other hand, are high – good grades, good colleges, and ultimately, they think – a good life.

They understand that cheating is wrong, but still do it. 

At its core cheating is not a technology problem, but an integrity problem. Technology amplifies it by making cheating:

  • Easy to get away with
  • Ubiquitous 
  • Undetectable
  • Free or very cheap

How Bad Is Cheating With Technology?

In a 2009 Pew Research Center study, 35% of teens admitted to using their smartphones to cheat on homework or tests. 65% of teens reported seeing other students use phones to cheat.

In 2015, the International Center for Academic Integrity reported that 68% of undergraduate students and 43% of graduate students admit to cheating. 

Today between 75% and 98% of college students admit to cheating while in high school.

That’s basically everybody.

In 2020, COVID-19 virtual learning put academic cheating on steroids. In our local high school, phones used to be banned from the classroom. With students learning from home, expecting them to not look up answers during the test is laughable. Even with schools reopened, the standards remain low as the phones stay in the classroom – teachers basically turn a blind eye to rampant teaching.

What About Online Courses?

Online learning makes it almost impossible to detect academic dishonesty. The student is alone with their computer. If test answers and completed assignments are posted anywhere, it’s an easy score – and no one will ever know. Or they can ask a smarter friend to login with their credentials, without doing any actual work themselves. The only barrier to cheating is the honesty of the student when they click: “Yes, I will uphold the honor code”:

coursera honor code screenshot

The Path of Least Resistance

In a culture where kids’ desires are fulfilled instantly, cheating with technology is another symptom of their inability to delay gratification. Cheating is the path of least resistance, while learning and memorization is hard.

Human brains are biologically wired to look for an easy way out – and technology exploits human nature by placing instant gratification at the core of their business model.

Cut and paste the answer – so much easier than searching for it inside your own head and expressing it in your own words. Quick, easy, efficient – you are done! Time to forget about the boring learning and move on to the good stuff – like video games and social media.

Academic Pressure

Learning is no longer a priority – grades are. The competition for admission into elite colleges in high schools across America is toxic. It’s tempting to cheat your way in – sometimes the difference between an honest B and a dishonest A can determine the course of a student’s life.

If others cheat and you don’t, they get an unfair advantage and your honesty gets penalized with a lower GPA and diminished prospects.

With stakes so high, even parents are sometimes on board with cheating.

No Idea of Right and Wrong

Cheating also comes in the wake of deterioration of moral values in general – thanks to mass media culture. In the world where anything goes, there is no good and evil, right and wrong. You do you.

When educators and parents are clueless or turn a blind eye, external barriers to academic cheating are gone. Children themselves lack internal convictions, eroded by digital media.

With internal moral compass absent, the self-absorbed narcissistic young would not think twice about academic dishonesty – as long as they grab their good grades without getting caught.

And so they cheat.

A Little Help From My Friends

Texting during a test turns a test into a team project. Two (or more) heads are better than one. It takes a second to snap a picture and share it with your friends on a messaging app. The teacher cannot look at all the kids in the class simultaneously.

Sharing homework from the privacy of your bedroom is even easier and has an added bonus of social validation. A helpful friend who posted their work would collect popularity points from her tribe, and can bask in her social media glory.

Phone As a Cheat Sheet

Why bother memorizing the material, when it is much easier to just store it on the phone? Looking up answers to the test on the phone is easier than remembering them – and, unlike the brain that might forget facts, a digital cheat sheet eliminates mistakes.

Internet Search

Searching for answers online is a standard for human behavior these days – we all just google it. However, exams should be an exception – the point is testing the student, not testing Google.

Plagiarism: Copy and Paste

Copy and paste an online article and the research paper is done. To spot plagiarism, teachers need to cross-check every essay from every student in the class against the Internet.

There are plenty of online tools that check for plagiarism, but it’s extra work. Not every teacher would be willing to make their job harder unless the school requires it. Besides, not every school district would be willing to pay subscription fees for the software.

Homework Websites

Multiple free tools on the Internet allow students to circumvent hard work of thinking. Using your head or a piece of paper for doing math is so outdated – there are websites that would solve any math problem instantly. Just copy the answer.

These algorithms are a whole lot more sophisticated than a calculator – if the teacher requires students to “show the work”, the program does that too – no need to use your own brain to struggle with math.

Tutoring websites offer help in every imaginable subject. Here is the front page of “Simply snap a picture of your question and have a Professional Tutor email you the answer + explanation in a short amount of time.”

Homework Apps

Homework websites have evolved into apps to follow kids everywhere on their phones. A sample of homework “help” apps on Appstore reveals a universe of cheating opportunities. Here are a few:

  • Photomath (currently at 220+ million downloads): “Reads and solves mathematical problems instantly by using the camera of your mobile device.”
  • Gauthmath: “Can help and solve all your math homework!”. 
  • Brainly: “Need homework help? Post homework questions and receive homework answers and help from other students within minutes!”
  • SnapCalc: “Does the math for you. Just snap a picture of a math problem, and voila – the answer is displayed on your screen”.
  • Slader: “Offers millions of free step-by-step solutions to all the questions in the most popular textbooks in middle school, high school, and college.”
  • Answers – Homework Help: “Over 100 million homework answers ready for you, instantly!”

It goes on and on. It’s a wonder any learning is happening at all.

Foreign Languages

Who needs to study grammar and memorize vocabulary in the days of Google Translate?

Alexa, What Is the Square Root of X?

I caught my kids doing math at their cousins’ house asking Amazon’s Alexa for answers. No thinking required – just write it down, wrap up boring homework and get to the important stuff – video games! We had to unplug the talking AI to engage their brains.

Internet of Things devices are entering our homes. They are also replacing our children’s brains.

What Can Parents Do?

If you catch your child cheating:

  1. Talk to them and find out the reasons. Why are they not studying on their own – is it the question of time or of motivation? Is “everybody else is doing it”? Then the school needs to know and take action. 
  2. Teach them to use the sources of information responsibly, using quotes and giving credit, instead of plagiarising the material. All ideas come from somewhere, we just combine them in different ways and add our own thoughts. 
  3. Cultivate family values of honesty and integrity. Be a role model.
  4. Is the temptation to cheat – phone, computer – removable? Can you remove it for homework, and advocate that the school bans the phones in the classroom? Away For The Day campaign asks for just this change in the school phone policies. 
  5. Consequences at school – let them happen. Natural consequences like a zero grade or detention are there to modify problematic behavior. Do not bail out your child.
  6. Consequences at homedigital grounding. Remove tech privileges for a set time, whether it’s a day or a week. The message will register.

What Can Teachers Do?

  1. Level the playing field. What this means is no phones in the classroom. Kids who cheat on their phones are rewarded with higher grades – and it’s not fair. The only reliable solution is to separate the student from the device. Talking about the honor code but not removing the temptation of the phone is like trying to lose weight while staring at the plate of cookies. We are expecting too much from kids and their immature brains.
  2. Monitor school computers. Once the phones are removed, that still leaves the problem of students looking up answers to the test on their computers. That’s where technological solutions can be helpful, with teachers using software to monitor what students are doing. Our school district uses GoGuardian, there are many others. Schools need to be proactive and make school computers a tight ship – questionable websites are blocked at all times, and students’ online activity is monitored in real time to make sure violations are caught quickly. 
  3. A human to enforce the rules. Technological solutions can be circumvented or hacked. Cheating is best prevented on two levels: software + actual teachers keeping an eye on students. 
  4. Make it hard to plagiarize. Cheating on homework can be minimized by making assignments more difficult for kids to copy from the Internet or from each other – like personalized essays for language arts, or word explanations for math problems.
  5. Traditional learning. Pen and paper, please!
  6. Make good behavior the only option. Schools should not rely on students’ self-control and moral values. Technology is designed to break those down. Schools have to assume that cheating will happen unless barriers are put in place that make ethical behavior automatic: remove the phones and control school computers.

Human Downgrading

What kind of work ethic young people who cheated through their education carry over from their school days into the workplace? Quite possibly, wasting a lot of their employers’ paid work time on social media, while doing little actual work. 

Natural human learning process is practice and memorization – not googling and forgetting. Experts have been warning us for a long time that instead of enhancing education, screens might be destroying young minds. 

How would you like to have a life-threatening surgery performed by a young surgeon who got their medical training virtually?

They just might need to refresh their knowledge by watching an instructional YouTube video before cutting into you.

Explore existing screen time management solutions:

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