SOCIAL media websites are having a negative effect on mental health services for children in Ireland, an Oireachtas report on cyber-bullying has claimed.
The report by a cross-party group of TDs and senators also recommended that pay-as-you-go SIM cards and mobile phones should be tightly controlled to prevent cyber-bullying and harassment.
The report, due to be published later today, also says school courses and employer guidelines should be updated to clamp down on cyber-bullying.
The Oireachtas Communications Committee carried out hearings in the wake of a number of suicides which were linked to cyber bullying last year.
In a submission to the committee and which is included in the report, St Patrick’s Hospital said: “Social media is having a negative effect on Irish child and adolescent mental health services in terms of cyber-bullying, exposure to unsuitable violent and sexual material, as well as excessive use of social media websites instead of actual social interaction.”
The issue of cyber-bullying was examined by the committee following a number of suicides which was linked to alleged online harassment.
These included 15-year-old Ciara Pugsley from Co Leitrim and 13-year-old Erin Gallagher from Ballybofey, Co Donegal.
Erin’s 15-year-old sister Shannon also took her own life last December, two months after her sister’s suicide.
And just before Christmas, former junior agriculture minister and Meath East TD Shane McEntee also took his own life. His family initially said he had been attacked by “faceless cowards” who sent him “horrible messages” online and by text message but Mr McEntee’s daughter Helen, who won the by-election caused by her father’s death, dismissed claims cyber bullying led to her father’s death.
The committee began its hearings in the wake of these incidents, and the report will be sent to Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte.
Its recommendations include:
* Social media websites with age restrictions must swiftly delete accounts found to have been set up by children who are too young.
* Child protection guidelines for professionals working with children should include guidance on how to deal with cyber-bullying and “inappropriate use of social media”.
* Schools should be issued with new guidelines on how to deal with cyber-bullying.
* Employers should have a social media policy, which should outline what constitutes cyber-bullying and what action will be taken if the policy is broken. It also says that employers should “be aware cyber-bullying falls within the term ‘harrassment’ and should be a crime”.
* The Government should examine best practice internationally for the registration of pre-paid SIM cards, which are mostly popular with younger people, with a view to preventing their use for “malicious and illegal purposes”.
* The current Office for Internet Safety (OIS) does not adequately deal with cyber-bullying, which should be monitored by “industry led partnerships” between internet companies and Government.
* People working in the criminal justice system should be given continuous training so they can deal with bullying and cyber-bullying.
* More education for parents, teachers and children, and possibly “peer-to-peer” learning where children mentor their peers. The Social, Personal and Health Education curriculum could be updated to allow for this.
The report also says young people are not “sufficiently aware” of the current cyber-bullying guidelines, and there should be more “public awareness” that social media websites like Twitter and Facebook allow people “block” other users.
But it says cases of young people being bullied should be kept out of the courts and are best dealt with in schools unless there are “cases which are persistent or unresponsive to other forms of intervention”.
It says there is sufficient legislation in place to deal with cyber-bullying even though “identification and follow-through” remains a problem.
“However, the costs involved in pursuing a case through the courts may be prohibitive and this is a matter which requires further examination,” it adds.
And it says that while there have been cases where victims of cyber-bullying committed suicide, research has found it is “rarely” the sole cause.