HARDLY A week has gone by in recent times without media revelations of yet another ugly incident of Internet bullying, sometimes with tragic consequences.
It has the appearance - but wrongly so - of an epidemic and those in the Government, and elsewhere, with a leaning towards censorship would be happy to impose yet more freedom of speech restrictions in an effort to curb the problem. The solution, however, lies elsewhere.
The latest incident of internet bullying, reported in national media at the weekend, involves an online mob assault on a teenage girl. The root of the abuse was an incident in a Dublin pizza parlour in which the well-heeled daughter of a well-off accountant apparently launched a tirade of petulant abuse against a group who were taunting and filming her on their mobile phones. The phone video was subsequently posted on YouTube (but has since been removed) and quickly went 'viral', resulting in a torrent of abuse against the unfortunate teenager and her father, and what started out as a silly incident in a restaurant has turned into mindless hounding in a very public forum.
The girl's torment has prompted Meath minor footballer Shane McEntee to come to her defence, calling on the faceless bullies who are making her life hell to "cop on ... after all the recent tragedies". Mr McEntee knows only too well the impact cyber bullying can have. Before Christmas his uncle, junior Agriculture Minister Shane McEntee took his own life after being subjected to a vicious campaign of Internet bullying.
There clearly is a need to address this phenomenon and Justice Minister Alan Shatter could be the man to attempt this. Right now Minister Shatter is contemplating revisiting the 2006 Privacy Bill with a view to 'staking out the limitations to freedom of speech'. He is, apparently, much exercised in this by the petty controversy surrounding the publication in the Irish Daily Star of photos of a topless Kate Midleton, but his move towards limiting freedom of speech could also encompass internet bullying - and gain justification from the recent tragedies that have occurred.
However, Minister Shatter would be codding himself if he were to think that what basically amounts to censorship is an answer to the problem of Internet bullying. The Internet is far too wide in its reach, too international, to be subdued by Irish legislation, unless the companies' headquarters were based in Ireland and therefore came under our laws.
What is needed is not to censor free speech in an attempt to curb a means of communication that is far outside the control of the state; instead we need to educate people to use this powerful medium responsibly. That isn't something Minister Shatter will achieve by legislation, but schools, on the other hand, could do a lot to educate young people about how and how not to use the Internet. Most of all though this is a campaign that must begin in the home where young people need to learn to have respect for one another.
In this regard parents could well ask themselves if they know exactly how their children are using the smart phones they got for Christmas. They should know, because the Internet is an open door to the wide world and not everything out there is good.