Molly Russell died while suffering negative effects of online content, coroner concludes
Tap above to watch video report by Sam Holder
Schoolgirl Molly Russell died after suffering from “negative effects of online content”, a senior coroner has concluded in a landmark ruling.
Online material viewed by the 14-year-old on sites such as Instagram and Pinterest “was not safe” and “shouldn’t have been available for a child to see”, Andrew Walker found at North London Coroner’s Court on Friday.
Molly, from Harrow in north-west London, died in November 2017 from an act of self-harm after viewing material from the “ghetto of the online world”.
Concluding it would not be “safe” to rule Molly’s cause of death was suicide, Mr Walker said the teenager “died from an act of self-harm while suffering depression and the negative effects of online content”.
Molly’s father Ian Russell, speaking outside court after the coroner's conclusion, said he hoped it would "bring about change".
Ian Russell: I hope this will be an important step in bringing about change
“The way that the platforms operated meant that Molly had access to images, video clips and text concerning or concerned with self-harm, suicide or that were otherwise negative or depressing in nature," Mr Walker said in his concluding statement.
“The platform operated in such a way using algorithms as to result, in some circumstances, of binge periods of images, video clips and text – some of which were selected and provided without Molly requesting them.
“These binge periods, if involving this content, are likely to have had a negative effect on Molly.”
Her family had argued that sites such as Pinterest and Instagram recommended accounts or posts that “promoted” suicide and self-harm.
Meta executive Elizabeth Lagone said she believed posts that the Russell family argued “encouraged” suicide were safe when the teenager viewed them.
Pinterest’s Judson Hoffman told the inquest the site was “not safe” when Molly used it.
The inquest was told that out of 16,300 posts Molly saved, shared or liked on Instagram in the six-month period before her death, 2,100 were depression, self-harm or suicide-related.
The court was played 17 clips the teenager viewed on the site – prompting “the greatest of warning” from the coroner.
The inquest also heard details of emails sent to Molly by Pinterest, with headings such as “10 depression pins you might like” and “new ideas for you in depression”.
Material 'influenced' teen in a negative way
“Molly was at a transition period in her young life which made certain elements of communication difficult,” the coroner said on Friday.
The schoolgirl was “exposed to material that may have influenced her in a negative way and, in addition, what had started as a depression had become a more serious depressive illness,” Mr Walker said.
He described some of the content Molly viewed as “particularly graphic” and “normalised her condition,” focusing on a “limited” view without any counter-balance.
“In some cases, the content was particularly graphic, tending to portray self-harm and suicide as an inevitable consequence of a condition that could not be recovered from," Mr Walker continued.
Sites' contributions to schoolgirl's death 'more than minimal'
“The sites normalised her condition focusing on a limited and irrational view without any counterbalance of normality," he said.
“It is likely that the ... material viewed by Molly, already suffering with a depressive illness and vulnerable due to her age, affected her mental health in a negative way and contributed to her death in a more than minimal way."
Molly also turned to celebrities for help while she was suffering from depression, not realising there was little prospect of a reply, Mr Walker said.
The coroner said on Thursday he intended to issue a Prevention of Future Deaths (PFD) notice which will recommend actions on how to prevent a repeat of the Molly Russell case.
The Russell family’s lawyer, Oliver Sanders KC, asked the coroner to send the PFD to Instagram, Pinterest, media regulator Ofcom and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
Meta to 'carefully consider' coroner's full report
A spokeswoman for Meta said: “Our thoughts are with the Russell family and everyone who has been affected by this tragic death.
“We’re committed to ensuring that Instagram is a positive experience for everyone, particularly teenagers, and we will carefully consider the coroner’s full report when he provides it.
“We’ll continue our work with the world’s leading independent experts to help ensure that the changes we make offer the best possible protection and support for teens.”
A spokeswoman for Pinterest said: “Our thoughts are with the Russell family.
“We’ve listened very carefully to everything that the Coroner and the family have said during the inquest.
“Pinterest is committed to making ongoing improvements to help ensure that the platform is safe for everyone and the coroner’s report will be considered with care.
“Over the past few years, we’ve continued to strengthen our policies around self-harm content, we’ve provided routes to compassionate support for those in need and we’ve invested heavily in building new technologies that automatically identify and take action on self-harm content.
“Molly’s story has reinforced our commitment to creating a safe and positive space for our Pinners.”
The Prince of Wales responded to Friday's inquest findings in a tweet to say online safety for children “needs to be a prerequisite”.
William, who met Molly’s father Ian Russell in November 2019, said “no parent should ever have to endure” what the family went through.
Digital Secretary Michelle Donelan said the inquest had “shown the horrific failure of social media platforms to put the welfare of children first.”
Shadow digital, culture, media and sport secretary Lucy Powell said it was a “scandal that just as the coroner is announcing that harmful social media content contributed to Molly Russell’s death, the government is looking to water down the Online Safety Bill”.
On the evening of the inquest findings, a peer announced that an Online Safety Bill amendment will be brought forward to help bereaved parents access information about social media companies.
Baroness Beeban Kidron said she will table a change to the proposed legislation in the House of Lords after a coroner concluded content viewed on the internet contributed to the schoolgirl’s death.
Charity: Ruling should send shockwaves through Silicon Valley
The NSPCC condemned what it described as Meta and Pinterest’s “abject failure” to protect Molly from content no child should ever see.
In a statement after the coroner’s conclusion, NSPCC chief executive Sir Peter Wanless said: “Finally, Molly’s family have the answers they deserve thanks to their determination to see Meta and Pinterest questioned under oath about the part they played in their daughter and sister’s tragic death.
“The ruling should send shockwaves through Silicon Valley – tech companies must expect to be held to account when they put the safety of children second to commercial decisions. The magnitude of this moment for children everywhere cannot be understated.
“Molly’s family will forever pay the price of Meta and Pinterest’s abject failure to protect her from content no child should see, but the Online Safety Bill is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reverse this imbalance between families and Big Tech.
“This must be a turning point and further delay or watering down of the legislation that addresses preventable abuse of our children would be inconceivable to parents across the UK.”
There is very little regulation of social media in the UK, and of what currently exists relates to advertising, copyright law, defamation and libel laws.
Analysis of the ruling by ITV News London's Sam Holder
It’s significant for sure, in the words of Mollys dad Ian, this the first time ever that tech platforms are being held legally accountable for a child’s death.
It’s important to say that Meta and Pinterest say that they do work with experts to make their platforms safe but this is a really significant moment.
We don’t know exactly what will happen next, what is happening right now though is that the coroner is preparing a Prevention of Future Deaths report and in that he’s going to be raising some questions and concerns.
For example, whether there needs to be separate site for adults and children, whether there needs to be better age verifications, questions about the dangers of algorithms and the fact that on many platforms many parents can’t actually see what their children have been looking at.
This report, once it has been completed, will be sent to Meta, to Pinterest and to the government.
Samaritans provides round the clock support for people when they need it most. You can call them 24 hours a day on 116 123. They also have tips if you're concerned about someone you know, and advice if you're struggling yourself
Young people who need support or have any concerns about what they have seen or heard during the inquest can contact Childline on 0800 1111 or via www.childline.org.uk
Adults concerned about a child or who needs advice about supporting a young person can contact the NSPCC Helpline on 0808 800 5000 or via firstname.lastname@example.org.
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