THESE days, the internet's a pretty vital tool in journalism.

It's up there with notebook and pen, trusted sources, thick skin and unrelenting caffeine consumption.

The job demands a level of devotion to social media more suited to a committed teenage bedroom dweller than a newsroom full of jaded reporters.

If you don't want to see Game of Thrones spoilers, they say, just step away from the internet.

Unlikely. Love it or hate it, the internet's such a huge part of life these days - it's no hobby or temporary obsession, it's the blurring of boundaries between the virtual and the real.

It never ceases to astonish me how much people share online, the lives lived and the moments played out in the newest of public spheres.

Many of my biggest stories were picked up online - these days, a reporter's beat must take in the virtual community as well as the traditional.

I tell my nieces and nephews to watch what they're posting because of people like me - and those with worse motives, too.

With freedom of anonymity, people become who they want to be, adopting unfettered temporary identities and unleashing extremities of opinion they may think twice about uttering down the pub.

In the virtual world, the law is proving almost entirely inept at proving the old adage of there being consequences for actions.

Defamation and contempt laws may bind the traditional media but they do little to constrain online vigilantes or hateful trolls.

I'm a fan of freedom of speech but the vitriol that often shelters under it makes me daydream about armies of internet mams policing comments sections, muttering 'if you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all'.

The Northern Echo's commenters are a fairly well-behaved bunch - they don't much like Bill Dixon or changes to refuse collections and they're gleefully quick to pick up on our mistakes - but I've no problem with impassioned debate.

Further afield, , it's a more worrying story.

The Guardian's recent research around online commenting revealed you'd be most likely to be abused as a writer if you were a woman, or not white.

In the arena of the troll, threats to kill and rape mix regularly and unsettlingly with doxxing campaigns taking the virtual into the real - names and addresses published to an easily mobilised mob, targets forced to move homes and secure police protection.

I'm acutely aware of this scenario, its fall-out well documented and genuinely disturbing.

I'm a lefty feminist and ideal target and some days, pressing that share button on my latest column is a heavy act.

I'll always have the courage of my convictions in standing by what I write, but I often write knowing I'm issuing a troublesome invitation rather than simply sharing an opinion.

I'll keep doing it, because I'm a reporter in 2016 and it's what we do - but I can't convince myself it's always going to be as easy as ignoring the haters.

If I ever seriously catch the attention of the hate brigade, a thick skin and disregard will help - but they shouldn't be the only tools for defence.

Anti-trolling laws and anti-stalker laws exist, but the resources to implement them seem all too scarce and prosecutions exceptionally rare.

The authorities need to catch up - the policing of the virtual world must reflect the ethics and laws of the real as the boundaries between the two are crumbling fast.