Thousands of photos of Irish teenage girls are ending up on hard-core pornography sites without their knowledge, the RTÉ Investigations Unit has found.

In a report on RTÉ's Prime Time tonight, 'Online and Unprotected' reveals some of the dangers young people face from the use of social media.

The photos of Irish girls ending up on pornography sites are typical, innocent pictures, taken in social settings, the likes of which can be found on thousands of social media pages across the world.

However, those images are being copied by individuals who upload the pictures in their thousands to photo-sharing websites and in many cases to extreme hard-core pornography sites.

The pictures, in the main, are of young girls in their very early teens.

The girls and their parents are completely unaware their images are being misappropriated in this way.

Personal information related to the individuals in the photos is also shared online.

Many of the sites encourage "members" to comment on the photos.

Many of the comments are threatening and abusive.

The programme discovered some of those misappropriating the pictures were also involved in attempting to groom teenagers online.

The RTÉ Investigations Unit created a profile of a fictitious 14-year-old called Amy.

RTÉ's graphic design department produced a computer generated image girl that was used on the profile.

'Amy' joined a social media account at the beginning of October.

For the purpose of research, her account was left open to the public.

In less than 30 days she had accumulated over 1,000 friends - 1,000 people who befriended a fictitious girl they could not have possibly known.

Within a week, the account started receiving private messages from teenage boys of a similar age who were encouraging her to exchange messages of a sexual nature.

The approaches Amy received then quickly intensified, including contact from adult men in Ireland and around the world who engaged her in extreme and sexually explicit conversations.

Text conversations the RTÉ production team observed between one middle-aged man and what he believed was a 14-year-old girl have been described as alarming. 

Special Rapporteur on Child Protection calls for immediate implementation of laws on online grooming

Cyber psychologist Mary Aiken told RTÉ that social media can be a perfect hunting ground for paedophiles.

"You can have children, or young adolescents, expressing vulnerability online, ‘I hate my family, I hate my friends, I want to runaway, my life is miserable’.

"The sort of things most teenagers at some stage think or articulate, but those sentiments are readily available online, and the point is that there are people who are predatory, for whatever motive, who will focus and hone in on that vulnerability and that effectively is the risk."

Last week Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald published a draft bill on sexual offences including grooming and pornography but as things stand there is currently no internet grooming offence here.

In Northern Ireland grooming legislation has been in place for almost six years.

The PSNI has said the legislation has helped it tackle the offence in a more direct way.

PSNI Detective Chief Inspector Alan Little said: "It's the same thing for the child who's up in their bedroom at night at 10.30 on their iPad, on their phone, perhaps on their laptop who are being groomed or abuse or images being sent, that's very much as real as somebody who is abused or indecently assaulted in what we could consider out on the streets or walking the streets late at night."

The Special Rapporteur on Child Protection has called for immediate action from Government to implement laws criminalising online grooming in Ireland.

Dr Geoffrey Shannon described RTÉ's findings as "deeply disturbing" and called on the Minister for Justice to immediately enact into law the recent sexual offences bill so that online grooming can be criminalised here.

"I have been calling for the offence of grooming to be dealt with in a comprehensive fashion since appointed to the role in 2007.

"I would hope that the Minister, given her track record in this area, will fast track this legislation.

"After all, our houses of parliament met in emergency session to give bankers a bailout - surely we should ensure our children are safeguarded by treating this bill in a similar manner to the bailout bill."

Watch Prime Time - 'Online and Unprotected', at 9.35pm on RTÉ One, RTÉ News Now and worldwide on the RTÉ Player.