EDUCATION rather than legislation is the key to addressing the issue of cyber bullying and the use of social networking sites to post up vitriolic personal comments against people.
That's the view of Mallow based Junior Minister Sean Sherlock, who has revealed that the Department of Education and Skills is set to spearhead a new initiative aimed at addressing the issue over the coming months.
The issue has been brought sharply into focus over recent months following the tragic deaths of teenagers Ciara Pugsley, sisters Erin and Shannon Gallagher and former Junior Minister Sean McEntee.
Closer to home Cork East TD Tom Barry and Minister Sherlock have both been subjected to vile online abuse, with Deputy Barry having his life threatened and Minister Sherlock being told that someone hoped he died of cancer.
Speaking to the Corkman, Minister Sherlock said the new initiative would seek to educate second level schoolchildren on how to use social networking sites in a more responsible manner.
"It is my belief that the legislation that already exists in this area is robust and applies equally to comments made online as well as offline," he said.
"My instinct tells me that this is more of a cultural issue than a legislative one. It is about changing people mindsets and this can only be done through educating people about the internet and how to use it responsibly," added minister Sherlock.
He was keen to point out that as a politician he understood that people had every right to voice their opinions and that social networking sites are an ideal platform for that.
"As a politician you have to develop a thick skin and learn to tell the difference between genuine concern and unacceptable abuse. Politicians expect to get a little bit of anger directed at them but it should not cross the line of personal abuse," said Minister Sherlock.
He is only too aware of how serious the problem can be after someone left a message on his Facebook site in May of last year saying that they hoped Minister Sherlock died of cancer.
"To be honest I would be more concerned about the mentality of someone who would leave messages such as that and who would issue death threats online, than for my own personal safety," said the TD.
"What really worries me is when abuse is aimed at young and vulnerable people who do not have the skills and experience to cope with cyber bullying. As we have seen, this kind of abuse can have catastrophic and tragic consequences," said Minister Sherlock.
He said it was important that young people were taught from an early age what is acceptable behaviour on the internet.
"Parents have a huge role to play in this, in the very same way that they teach their children what is acceptable behaviour in the real world. It goes back to instilling a value system in young people and thereby encouraging cultural change" said Minister Sherlock.