The Future

“I knew they were using them during class because I saw them swiping... It drove me crazy.”

The Future

Rich kids are cheating in school with Apple Watches

Teachers haven’t cracked down because the watches are tricky to police and only a few kids — the richest ones — have them.

Most people do not like the Apple Watch. It’s expensive. It’s annoying. And while Apple has tried to pivot to marketing it as a health and fitness tracker, unless you want to find out if you’re having a heart attack while you’re actually having a heart attack, its functionality is fairly limited.

There is, however, one demographic that has embraced the Apple Watch with open arms: tech-savvy, upper middle-class teens and tweens. The watch is a convenient workaround for classroom cell-phone bans; it can be used for everything from texting to cheating on tests.

It’s unclear exactly how many kids have Apple Watches, as Apple does not release its sales data (and declined to provide comment for this story). But according to a 2017 survey of 600 parents by Hart Research Associates and the Family Online Safety Institute, approximately 10 percent of kids between the ages of two and 12 have their own wearable device, such as a smart watch or fitness tracker, while 21 percent have access to a device (meaning their parent or sibling has one).

“The market for children’s wearables is gaining momentum,” Jason Barry, an analyst at the market research firm Gap Intelligence, told me, citing GPS-tracking on devices like the Apple Watch and the parental controls on the LG GizmoWatch as features that appeal to parents. Kids’ smartwatches are particularly popular in China, where more than 90 percent of them will be sold this year, per CCS Insights data.

Julia Rubin, a former middle-school teacher at a private school in New York City, said that when the Apple Watch first came out in 2014, a handful of students got them as presents for the holidays. “I knew they were using them during class because I saw them swiping on their watches. It’s not so easy to hide — the kids were looking straight down at their wrists, and it wasn’t as if they were checking the time,” she said. “It drove me crazy.”

When Rubin asked her school’s principal to ban the watches the same way the school banned cell phones, she refused. “If I remember correctly, it didn’t affect enough students to be worth making a policy over,” she said, though “it definitely would have been easier, as a teacher, if they fell into the same category as phones and could be taken away.”

In addition to kids texting during class, there is growing concern that smart watches could be used to help kids cheat during exams. In fact, there is a wealth of YouTube videos showing teens how to do precisely that, usually with the disclaimer that they are only sharing this information “for entertainment purposes.”  

Nikias Molina, 20, is a Spanish vlogger who runs the YouTube channel Apple World. A slender, dark-haired kid with braces and a slight European accent, Molina posted a 2018 video showing subscribers how to use various apps on the Apple Watch to cheat on exams. “Basically, my audience wanted me to do it,” Molina told me. “I know friends who have done it, so I showed their ways.”

As he demonstrates in the video and explained to me, there are apps you can download onto the Apple Watch to save PDFs, but the most common method is to take a photo of a cheat sheet and pull it up on the Apple Watch, which doesn’t require internet accessibility. The response to the video was mixed — “students were thanking me [in the comments], and teachers were hating on me” — but the video racked up more than 115,000 views.

Molina didn’t really have ethical concerns about uploading the video, pointing out that he included a “do it at your own risk” disclaimer in the intro. But he also says that he doesn’t object to cheating in general. “In the U.S., cheating feels like a bad thing to do,” he said. “In Spain, it still feels like a bad thing to do, but people aren’t ashamed of it. They’re more honest about it.”

For the time being, it’s also a pretty easy thing to do. Some standardized testing organizations already prohibit the use of smart watches during testing, but such policies are not widespread. Generally speaking, school policies on tech in the classroom vary widely by district, by classroom, and even by teacher: while some teachers adopt a staunch “no phones allowed” policy, collecting phones in the morning and returning them to students at the end of the day (which would prevent many students from using smart watches in the first place, as older versions must be tethered to your phone), others have a more relaxed policy, allowing students to keep their phones as long as they are not in sight during class.

Some teachers I spoke with dismissed concerns that smart watches could be used to cheat, on the grounds that if the watch isn’t tethered to a phone (and thus not tethered to Wi-Fi), it would be difficult to do so. Molina scoffed at this assumption:  “they’re wrong,” he said, pointing out that you can access basic features like photos without connectivity. Furthermore, an upgraded version of the Apple Watch can access cellular networks, meaning it doesn’t need a tethered phone in order to send and deliver messages or access the Internet.

Few schools have established a policy on smart watches, allowing students to use them during class without compunction. “My school doesn't have a policy because... I haven't asked for one (yet)? Because we're reactive rather than proactive? I don't really have a good answer here,” said David Friedlander-Holm, a physics and astrophysics teacher at a private school in San Francisco. “I think my colleagues are less tuned into tech than I am.”

It’s worth noting that Friedlander-Holm, like Rubin, teaches in an area where kids tend to be wealthier and more technologically sophisticated than most (in fact, he estimates that “one in five” of his students has an Apple Watch). While he says the watches haven’t posed a huge issue during class, he doesn’t have any illusions about how the students are using them. “I think [the watch] lets them be more surreptitious,” he says. “I think that since they’ve grown up with them in a lot of ways, they are really good at hiding it from me.”

But even if students aren’t even using Apple Watches in the classroom (either to cheat or simply to screw around), there’s still concern among educators that such flashy tech could deepen social and class divides in the classroom. Damon Reader, the director of library and information technology at Great Neck South High School in Great Neck, NY, helped implement the school’s 1:1 iPad initiative, which supplies every student with an iPad.

“One of the ideas behind giving them iPads is that we’re leveling the playing field,” or ensuring that every student has equal access to information, he said. While he hasn’t seen many students sporting smart watches at the middle school, he could see how such tech would be viewed as “a status symbol.”

And this is perhaps the greatest concern over tech in school: at a time when you’re acutely conscious of your own position in the social hierarchy, having a $400 piece of tech strapped to your wrist or a flip phone in your pocket may serve as a constant reminder of where you stand.

You can see this dynamic play out on YouTube, where tweens with gleaming orthodontia shyly show off their new Apple Watches, as commenters line up to call them spoiled brats. In one video, a British blond boy who looks to be about seven or eight years old quietly opens an Apple Watch package. “What perfect packaging from Apple,” the boy’s father gushes behind the camera as his son shyly models his baby blue watch. “He’s gonna get beaten up at school for that,” one commenter wrote, while another said, “When I was 8 years old I had a Toy Story watch.”

In the U.S., Apple Watches still aren’t trendy enough to be viewed as a legitimate nuisance in schools: “I’ve seen some among teenagers, but they haven’t really caught on,” said Jim Taylor, author of the book Raising Generation Tech. “I think kids are living on Snapchat and Instagram, and [on the Apple Watch] you can’t engage with those as much.” The fact that they’re still wildly expensive — an Apple Watch Series 3 with GPS and connectivity costs $409 — also significantly curbs their popularity.

But in some adolescent (and even younger) social circles, expensive matters. “I had a few students last year with FitBits. They all wanted Apple Watches,” said a former second-grade teacher who now teaches kindergarten at a Manhattan private school. “They love everything technology. Particularly if it’s an Apple product.”

E.J. Dickson is a writer in New York.