SOCIAL-MEDIA companies could face fines of up to €2bn if they fail to meet proposed EU guidelines on combating cyber bullying.
A major conference on the issue also heard that parents and schools must be taught how to protect children who are being "bred" into an online world.
The forum, hosted by Irish MEP Sean Kelly, was held at the Kilmurry Lodge Hotel in Limerick and was arranged in order to raise awareness of online bullying.
Mr Kelly has been appointed by the European Parliament to draft data-protection regulations. The Fine Gael politician warned of "very strict fines and curtailments. If necessary, there would be a route into court if they (social-media operators) were continuously not abiding by the rules".
He continued: "For the likes of Facebook, it (a fine) would be anything up to €2bn of their global income on a particular year or else we would probably put in for a certain percentage of their global income. So that would be a great deterrent."
Mr Kelly said he hoped to finalise the proposed regulations, which need to be voted on by the EU Parliament before elections in 2014.
Facebook's user operations manager, Cormac Keenan, said the company was not fearful of the threat of possible massive fines, because it was satisfied that it would meet any guidelines on online safety.
"Safety is a conversation that needs to happen and we take it extremely seriously. We have a lot of people managing safety on Facebook," he said.
"We believe, and it has been recognised, that our (security) settings and policies are leading-edge across the industry, but we are always looking at different ways to improve that."
One of the keynote speakers at the conference, Pat Forde, an anti-bullying campaigner, said he was shocked to discover that children as young as eight were using social media and being bullied by vastly older strangers.
He said: "We're breeding kids into an online environment. I meet kids from as young as second and third class and they are very familiar with the concepts of having friends online and sending messages online.
"A lot of them tell me they are friends with people online they don't know. They've seen people sending mean and hurtful messages online, so we really need to up our efforts on this."
Mr Forde, who addresses schools on cyber bullying, added: "What's really needed is a safe platform to teach kids safe online behaviour. It should be part of the syllabus."
The conference came in the wake of several high-profile teenage suicides in Ireland which have been linked to cyber-bullying.
Erin Gallagher (13) from Donegal took her own life last year after being bullied online. Tragically, her sister Shannon (15) also committed suicide shortly afterwards as she was bereft without her sister.
Ciara Pugsley (15), from Leitrim, also took her life after receiving vicious taunts online.
William Casey (21), from O'Brien's Bridge, Co Clare, was among the young people who attended the conference as part of a group from Limerick Youth Service.
Asked about cyber-bullying, he said: "It's a big problem alright. I suppose you don't really understand how words can hurt you until you can read them in black and white. Then when you see people joining in behind that, it's like pouring petrol on a fire."
He has not suffered online bullying himself, but said: "It all starts from these little Facebooks and no one sees harm in it – but there is harm in it."