To illustrate the power of the Internet — and the fact that what you say or do online can have far-reaching consequences — Alex Wespi likes to tell kids about a little tweet that caused a big uproar.
The comment, posted on a Kansas high school student’s Twitter page during a field trip last fall, insulted Gov. Sam Brownback, was flagged by the governor’s staff and landed the student in her principal’s office.
It also made international news. The student, Emma Sullivan, now has nearly 12,500 followers on Twitter. She graduated this month and still hears feedback, good and bad, about what she said.
“All from one tweet,” says Wespi, 18, a recent graduate of Northwest High School in Wichita. “That shows how you never know who might be watching.”
Wespi and two classmates, Taryn Thomas and Broc Cramer, launched the “Wonder Who’s Watching?” campaign to teach children and teens about Internet safety. Earlier this month, the students were awarded first place in the public relations category of an international career development conference in Utah.
Wespi said students out of school for summer vacation tend to spend more time online, so it’s important to show them and their parents how to stay safe on computers and cellphones.
“The No. 1 tip we tell everyone, whether it’s a kid or an adult, is to think twice before posting anything — a photo, a video, a status,” he said. “Whatever you put online lives there forever.”
Wespi said he and his teammates made presentations to elementary school students and were surprised how many had cellphones and Facebook pages.
“So many hands went up — kids in third and fourth grade,” he said. “They’re growing up with technology. It’s just a part of everyday life, and lots of them have no idea about the dangers of the Internet.”
Wespi encouraged children and parents to talk about those dangers and to visit sites such as NetSmartz.org, a website sponsored by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children that features advice and even interactive games to teach online safety.
Wespi said Web safety gets a little trickier as children get older, because teens don’t like the idea of parents monitoring what they do online. He said a good compromise is for parents to friend their children on Facebook to see the sorts of things they’re posting, but to also give them some space and privacy.
“As long as a parent is clear about, ‘This is for your safety. It could affect whether you get scholarships or a job in the future,’ that’s what students need to know,” Wespi said.
He said his group emphasizes the positive sides of the sites such as Facebook and Twitter, which many teachers and schools use to reach out to students.
“It’s just a fine line” between benefits and dangers, he said. “There’s a ton of really great things online … but there also are bad things they should watch out for.”