Merlyn Johnson: Safeguarding our children — Navigating the digital landscape

As educators and parents, we are entrusted with the monumental task of working together to guide our children to achieve a bright and fulfilling future.

In today’s digital age, where the internet pervades every aspect of our lives, this responsibility takes on a new dimension. Internet access on devices offers a wealth of knowledge and opportunities for children, but it also harbors unseen dangers that can compromise their safety and well-being.

Parenting today is vastly different from just one generation ago. One of our parents’ biggest fears in the 1980s would be seeing a strange man living in a van down by the river. Unfortunately, we are unable to see many of the threats facing our kids today.

The parents of 2024 must navigate complex challenges such as managing screen time, monitoring online activities, and teaching digital literacy skills. Today, the descendants of those 1980s river dwelling transients are covertly preying on children while the children appear to be safely in their homes.

Another challenge is determining when is the right time to give a smartphone to your child. At Cassville Schools we are encouraging parents to take the “Wait Until 8th” pledge. This pledge encourages parents to hold off on giving their children smartphones until the children are in the 8th grade.

To help prevent children from feeling socially isolated, the pledge does not go into effect until ten other families from a child’s grade and school also take the pledge.

During my 26 years as an educator, I’ve witnessed firsthand the transformative power of technology in education. However, I’ve also seen the darker side of the internet and its potential to harm our children. Cyberbullying, online predators, exposure to inappropriate content — these are just a few of the risks that our children face when navigating the online world.

In light of these dangers, it is imperative that we, as a community, take proactive measures to protect our children. Sometimes, I wish I could just snap my fingers and make technology go away…go back to a time when kids played outside all day with one request from their parents, “Be home before the street lights come on.”

Unfortunately, my wish is unrealistic. We cannot bury our heads in the sand and avoid technology altogether. Parents and teachers play a pivotal role in educating children about internet safety and monitoring their online activities. Here are some practical steps we can take:

• Open Communication: Encourage open dialogue between parents, teachers, and children about internet safety. Teach children about the potential risks of the internet and empower them to make responsible choices online.

• Parental Controls: Utilize parental control software and privacy settings to restrict access to inappropriate content and monitor children’s online activities. Regularly review and update these settings as needed.

• Education Programs: There are numerous resources and educational programs available for parents to learn about internet safety and effective monitoring techniques. The Childhood 2.0 Community Event that the District held on March 5 was a fantastic initiative toward this goal, and we are committed to continuing such efforts in the future.

• Supervised Usage: Encourage children to use the internet in common areas of the house where their activities can be monitored. Allowing children to have unlimited access and time in their bedrooms on the internet is one of the biggest mistakes a parent can make. Limit screen time and encourage alternative activities that foster creativity and physical activity.

• Digital Literacy Curriculum: As a district, we have integrated digital literacy and internet safety education into our curriculum. Our goal is to equip students with the skills and knowledge they need to navigate the online world safely and responsibly.

Beyond safeguarding our children online, it is essential to provide them with opportunities to disconnect and engage in activities that do not require constant connectivity. Here are some ideas:

• Outdoor Exploration: Encourage outdoor activities such as hiking, biking, archery or planting trees to foster a connection with nature and promote physical well-being.

• Creative Pursuits: Provide opportunities for children to explore their creativity through art, music, or writing. Encourage hands-on activities that stimulate imagination and problem-solving skills.

• Community & Church Involvement: Engage children in community service projects or volunteer work to instill values of empathy, compassion, and social responsibility. At church, children are able to develop strong social connections, moral compasses, and a sense of belonging that counteracts feelings of isolation and vulnerability often associated with excessive internet use.

Family Board Game Night: Engaging in board games is not only a source of entertainment, but also a powerful tool for nurturing children’s mental acuity and fostering confidence. Playing family games such as Dominoes, Yahtzee, and Monopoly challenges children to think creatively and analytically, honing their cognitive abilities in a fun and interactive way.

• Sports and Recreation: Encourage participation in sports and recreational activities that promote teamwork, discipline, and healthy competition. Now that the weather is warming up, pickleball at the Cassville City Park is being played every day when the weather cooperates. Come out and join the pickleball craze with your family and friends!

By striking a balance between technology use and offline activities, we can ensure that our children develop into well-rounded individuals who are equipped to thrive in the digital age while maintaining their safety and well-being.

At Cassville R-IV Schools, we are committed to providing a safe and nurturing environment for our students both online and offline. Together, let’s work together to empower our children to navigate the digital landscape with confidence and resilience.

Merlyn Johnson is the superintendent of the Cassville school district. He may be reached at mjohnson@cassville.k12.