Ten-year-old Tabitha Blackwell is a little nervous.
"I've never spoken in Congress before," she said after being invited to sit on a panel addressing Internet safety.
Tabitha will be one of about 75 teens and tweens speaking at the 8th Annual Wired Kids Summit in Washington D.C., on Wednesday. They will be addressing several senators, members of the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Communications Commission, and representatives from AOL, Microsoft, Webkinz, Facebook, Google, Disney and other Internet-related companies.
Tabitha, a fourth-grader at Canterbury School of Florida in St. Petersburg, will be joined by sixth-graders Bailey Rosen and Louie Alvarez. Most Canterbury students recently took part in workshops with Internet expert Parry Aftab, who travels the country addressing kids and adults on the topic. She is the executive director of Wired Safety, a nonprofit group dedicated to making the Internet safer.
In a role-playing activity, Tabitha acted as a lawyer arguing the side that kids don't need to go on the Internet.
"I said you could go in the library and do research and you would look through a lot of books and find information that you wouldn't find if you only used the Internet,'' she later explained. When the opposing "attorney" argued that a lot of kids can't get to the library, Tabitha countered that a parent could take them or they could walk and get needed exercise.
Aftab was impressed with Tabitha and invited her to be one of the youngest members of her "Teenangels" panels. Her Teenangels program has students from around the country researching various wired topics and becoming experts on them so they can teach other youth and adults.
Aftab told students the story of troubled Megan Meier, who committed suicide after a boy she got to be good friends with on the Internet suddenly turned on her and sent her terrible insults. The "boy" turned out to be the mother of a former friend posing as a boy.
"I felt that was really terrible,'' Bailey said. Her class took the "Megan Pledge" together, stating they would be part of the solution to cyber bullying and that suicide is never an option. "I'm going to get to meet Megan's mother in Washington,'' she added.
Bailey hasn't been bullied herself but knows fifth- and sixth-graders who have been. "A girl sent an IM (instant message) that was a mean message and the receiver was sitting right next to her when she got it,'' she said. "I think some people didn't think much about (cyber bullying) until (Aftab) talked to us. Now I think people feel strongly about it and strongly about the pledge."
Tabitha said she has learned to protect herself even on the simplest level, such as keeping her Webkinzpassword a secret. "Only my sister and my friend know it," she said. "I'm not going to give it out to 10 people or anything like that."
Katherine Snow Smith is a freelance writer from St. Petersburg.