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Liz Perle Headshot

Has Technology Changed Kids' Sense of Right and Wrong?

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Cheating is as old as the sun. So the dispiriting results of Common Sense Media's June 2009 nationwide poll on cheating that surveyed middle and high school students didn't really shock me. Among the juicier tidbits: A third of students admit they've used their cell phones for something other than phoning home (like taking pictures of answers or tests to share with their friends). And more than half said they've passed off something they found online as their own work. Kids admit to using high-tech ways to get around having to study (never mind that some of these strategies involve far more creativity and time investment than the tests they aim to outfox).

But what really alarmed me were kids' attitudes toward cheating. Call me old fashioned, but isn't cheating a bit like pregnancy? You're either pregnant or you aren't. You're either cheating or you aren't. Not much grey area that I can see. But that's not what the survey showed. Kids actually thought there were a range of offenses, from serious to "just helping yourself and a friend." And I think technology lies at the heart of this.

Personal technologies have created massive leaps forward in our kids' abilities to communicate, create, and collaborate. But they have an unintended consequence: They diminish the connection between action and consequence. Much of what goes on in digital life happens anonymously, which can make people think they can escape being caught. Remote access also lessens the sense of face-to-face responsibility. So what if you take a stranger's paper and pass it off as your own? Then there's the ease with which information can be found, captured, and sent to friends -- lots of them. Add to this an ability to communicate completely under parents' and teachers' radar, and you have a formula for kids thinking they can get away with less-than-ethical behavior.

As our kids create the content and the rules of this brave new world they'll live in, don't they want a responsible society where people are who they say they are, write what they said they've written, and respect others' creativity? Right now, our kids' technological abilities outstrip their judgment. It's up to parents and teachers to remind this generation that they have a choice: 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.