Online service providers will "exploit" any "loopholes" left in legislation which aims to make the internet safer for children, an Oireachtas committee has heard.

Professor Conor O'Mahony, Special Rapporteur on Child Protection Representatives from the National Bullying Centre, specifically referenced online gambling firms targetitng children.

He noted that the "digital environment is largely unregulated in Ireland at the moment".

There are "increasing risks of cyber bullying, exposure to harmful material" and "abuse", he said.

Professor O'Mahony welcomed the proposed bill as "broadly" going in the right direction, but said it needs to go "a little bit further" in certain respects.

The Joint Committee on Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport and the Gaeltacht is conducting pre-legislative scrutiny of the general scheme of the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill.

Professor O'Mahony said online advertising carries specific risks for children, including profiling, which the UN says needs to be regulated.

He added that legislation dealing with advertising in other media might not have the detail necessary to deal with these issues.

Several expert witnesses called for the appointment of a Commissioner for Media Pluralism, to ensure a vibrant online media environment in Ireland.

They also asked that the committee ensure that the legislation includes an explicit commitment to the appointment of an Online Safety Commissioner.

Dr Karen McAuley, Head of Policy at the Children's Ombudsman, said the bill represents a "significant opportunity" to regulate the online environment but agreed that improvements to it are needed.

The experts also emphasised the need for an individual complaint mechanism, which would allow for the removal of material.

Dr Eileen Culloty, DCU Institute of Future Media Democracy and Security, said the bill does not include measures to tackle disinformation, and asked that this be addressed.

Each online platform handles disinformation differently, she said, but added that we do not know how effective any of those measures are.

Online platforms have become integrated into our everyday lives, and while we treat them like public spaces, Dr Culloty warned, they are in fact private companies and can set their own terms and conditions.

Prof O'Mahony agreed with Ms McAuley's call for children to be consulted and said that children's views should be "properly considered" and "taken on board" in the process of finalising this legislation.

He advised ongoing contact with children to ensure that the legislation is kept relevant, into the future.

Prof O'Mahony also suggested that any fines that are levied on service providers might be used to provide support services for children who have experienced harm online.

Fianna Fáil Senator Malcolm Byrne said he is "frightened" by the "appalling idea" that Facebook is developing "Instagram for kids".