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What to do when teen cheats

A call that your teenager was caught cheating is hard to interpret as anything but bad news. But you can turn the incident into a learning experience — and maybe even a turning point.

In an age of cellphone cameras, Internet-enabled hand-held devices and other technology, it's easier than ever to game the system.

"Our poor kids live in a world where the lines have been blurred," says Liz Perle, co-founder and editor-in-chief of Common Sense Media. "Downloading a song for free. Is that theft? But it's free. We have to look at our whole culture of electronic empowerment."

In a recent poll of more than 2,000 students and parents, Common Sense found that many teens aren't clear about what constitutes cheating. Twenty-three percent, for example, said storing notes on a phone to access during a test is not cheating, and 19 percent said downloading a paper from the Internet to turn in as your own is not cheating.

Which brings us to expert tip No. 1.

1. Define cheating. Refer to the school's guidelines on the use of electronics, and lay out your own guidelines, too, Perle says: "Parents have to spell out: Sending another kid an answer or getting an answer from another kid? Cheating. Lifting material wholesale and plopping it down in your paper? Cheating. Be very clear about what is acceptable and what is not."

2. Root out a cause.

Kids will tell you it's no big deal and everybody does it, says psychologist Jennifer Powell-Lunder, co-author of

Teenage as a Second Language

(Adams Media, $14.95). "But you have to figure out why this is going on. 'Is the subject really difficult, and you don't get it?' 'Is it because you were texting all night and didn't study?' 'Are you feeling too much pressure from Dad and me?' You want to pull for your child to step up and take responsibility."

3. Don't belittle.

Say, " 'I love you. I think you're terrific. But we need to problem-solve this because cheating is taking away from yourself and taking away from other people,' " says Powell-Lunder, whose website,

, offers tips on conducting tough conversations.

4. Establish consequences

. The school has likely taken its own course of action, which you should never try to undo, says Perle. Let your child live with the fallout, and set up consequences at home, as well. "Cellular solitary is very effective," says Perle. "No cellphone, no Internet, no Facebook. And establish that it's a zero-tolerance policy because that's how important it is. Do not waffle."

5. Survey the landscape. Consider if your child is receiving mixed messages about honesty. "Let's say you have an older child who just applied to college and you wrote all those essays," says Powell-Lunder. "Maybe you were in the grocery store with your kid and they gave you incorrect change and you didn't say anything. This certainly isn't to suggest you taught your kid how to cheat, but we have to be aware of the very subtle ways that small things can be interpreted."