Little change made to 'horrifying scale of online harm', says Molly Russell's father

Molly Russell would have been celebrating her 21st birthday this week Credit: Family handout

Social media firms are still "pushing out harmful content to literally millions of young people" six years after Molly Russell's death, her father has said.

Molly and her family would have been celebrating her 21st birthday this week had she not taken her own life, aged 14, in November 2017.

The teenager, from Harrow, north-west London, had viewed posts related to suicide, depression and anxiety online, prior to her death.

Suicide prevention charity, the Molly Rose Foundation, named in honour of the schoolgirl, said it had found harmful content at scale and prevalent on Instagram, TikTok and Pinterest.

A inquest last year concluded Molly died from “an act of self-harm while suffering from depression and the negative effects of online content” in November 2017.

She died after being exposed to stream of dark, depressing content on Pinterest and Instagram.

Ian Russell said he's horrified by the scale of the issue and how 'little has changed' since his daughter died Credit: PA

Ian Russell, chair of trustees at the Molly Rose Foundation, said he has been left horrified at the scale of the issue and how "little has changed" in the six years since Molly died.

He said: “This week, when we should be celebrating Molly’s 21st birthday, it’s saddening to see the horrifying scale of online harm and how little has changed on social media platforms since Molly’s death.

“The longer tech companies fail to address the preventable harm they cause, the more inexcusable it becomes.

"Six years after Molly died, this must now be seen as a fundamental systemic failure that will continue to cost young lives.

“Just as Molly was overwhelmed by the volume of the dangerous content that bombarded her, we’ve found evidence of algorithms pushing out harmful content to literally millions of young people.

“This must stop. It is increasingly hard to see the actions of tech companies as anything other than a conscious commercial decision to allow harmful content to achieve astronomical reach, while overlooking the misery that is monetised with harmful posts being saved and potentially ‘binge watched’ in their tens of thousands.”

The charity’s report, created in partnership with data-for-good organisation, The Bright Initiative, collected and analysed data from 1,181 of the most engaged-with posts on Instagram and TikTok that used well-known hashtags around suicide, self-harm and depression.

It warns there is a clear and persistent problem with readily available and harmful content because many of the harmful posts it analysed were also being recommended by a platform’s algorithms.

While its concerns around hashtags were mainly focused on Instagram and TikTok, its concerns around algorithmic recommendations also applied to Pinterest.

The Molly Rose Foundation said it was concerned that the design and operation of social media platforms was sharply increasing the risk profile for some young people due to the ease with which they could find large amounts of potentially harmful content by searching for hashtags or by being recommended content along a similar theme.

It added platforms are failing to adequately assess the risks posed by features which enable users to find similarly-themed posts.

The charity also claimed commercial pressures were increasing the risk as sites compete to grab the attention of younger users and keep them scrolling through their feed.

An inquest last year concluded Molly ended her life after being exposed to a stream of dark and depressing content online Credit: PA

Mr Russell added that the findings highlighted how important the new Online Safety Act was, and that new online safety regulator Ofcom needed to be “bold” in how it held social media platforms to account under the new laws.

“Our findings show the scale of the challenge facing Ofcom and underline the need for them to establish bold and ambitious regulation that delivers stronger safety standards and protects young lives,” he said.

In response to the report, Technology Secretary Michelle Donelan said it was “despicable and indefensible” that social media firms were “still turning a blind eye to the scale of horrendous suicide and self-harm content”.

“This is one of the reasons why the Online Safety Act includes numerous measures to protect both adults and children from such content,” she said.

“Ofcom are consulting on the illegal harms duties the Act will bring in so that social media companies are aware of what is expected of them, meaning laws can be implemented as quickly as possible.

“These companies must not wait and instead should act now, to ensure we don’t see more tragic stories such as Molly’s, and I will be raising this directly with them in a meeting soon.”

Mr Russell said: 'The longer tech companies fail to address the preventable harm they cause, the more inexcusable it becomes' Credit: PA

A company spokesperson for Meta, which owns Instagram, said: “We want teens to have safe, age-appropriate experiences on Instagram, and have worked closely with experts to develop our approach to suicide and self-harm content, which aims to strike the important balance between preventing people seeing sensitive content while giving people space to talk about their own experiences and find support.

“We’ve built more than 30 tools to support teens and families, including our Sensitive Content Control, which limits the type of content teens are recommended.

“We continue to look for more ways we can help teens have age-appropriate experiences online and will be announcing further developments designed to make it even harder for teens to discover potentially sensitive content soon.”

A Pinterest spokesperson said: “Pinterest is committed to creating a safe platform for everyone.

“We are constantly updating our policies and enforcement practices around self-harm content, including blocking sensitive search terms and evolving our machine learning models so that this content is detected and removed as quickly as possible.”

A TikTok spokesperson said: “Content that promotes self-harm or suicide is prohibited on TikTok and, as the report highlights, we strictly enforce these rules by removing 98% of suicide content before it is reported to us.

“We continually invest in ways to diversify recommendations, block harmful search terms, and provide access to the Samaritans for anyone who needs support.”

Samaritans is available day or night, 365 days a year.

You can call them for free on 116 123, email them at, or visit to find your nearest branch.

The Mental Health Helpline for Wales is available to take your call any time, day or night. Freephone 0800 132 737 or text 'help" to 81066 (charged at standard network rate)

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know…