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Molly Russell coroner calls on social media companies to take action on harmful content to prevent further deaths

Senior Coroner Andrew Walker has issued a Prevention of Future Deaths report (PFD) to Meta, Pinterest, Twitter, Snapchat and the UK Government following the inquest into the death of 14-year-old Molly Russell.

Posted on 14 October 2022

The coroner has recommended that the government considers setting up an independent regulatory body to monitor online platform content and to consider enacting necessary legislation to protect children from the effects of harmful online content and ensure it is properly regulated.

In relation to the social media companies the coroner added that while regulation is a matter for government he could “see no reason why the platforms themselves would not wish to give consideration to self-regulation” in relation to harmful online content. Although Twitter and Snapchat were not Interested Persons to the inquest evidence was heard that Molly had accounts with them.

Molly Russell

In the report the coroner detailed some of the harmful content Molly engaged with or was provided to Molly without her requesting it, including images and videos that romanticised self-harm and normalised depression, content that sought to isolate and discourage discussion with real people who may have been able to help and content that portrayed self-harm and suicide as inevitable consequence of a condition that could not be recovered from.  

The coroner has recommended that the government considers:

  • reviewing the provision of internet platforms to children, with reference to harmful online content
  • separate platforms for adults and children
  • verification of age before joining the platform
  • provision of age-specific content
  • the use of algorithms to provide content
  • the use of advertising
  • parental, guardian or carer control including access to material viewed by a child, and retention of material viewed by a child.

In the PDF report the coroner listed a number of issues raised by the inquest which had informed his recommendations including that algorithms were used to provide content together with adverts, that parents/guardians/carers do not have access or control over the material being viewed by their child, that children’s accounts were not capable of being linked to that of a parent/guardian/carer for monitoring, lack of age verification, content not controlled so as to be age specific and the absence of a separation between adult and child parts of the platform or separate platforms for each group.
 
In reaction to the report Ian Russell, Molly’s father, said:

“We welcome this report by the coroner, which echoes our concerns about the online dangers Molly was exposed to, and pushed towards by the platforms' algorithms. We urge social media companies to heed the coroner’s words and not drag their feet waiting for legislation and regulation, but instead to take a proactive approach to self-regulation to make their platforms safer for their young users. They should think long and hard about whether their platforms are suitable for young people at all.

"The government must also act urgently to put in place its robust regulation of social media platforms to ensure that children are protected by from the effects of harmful online content, and that platforms and their senior managers face strong sanctions if they fail to take action to curb the algorithmic amplification of destructive and extremely dangerous content or fail to remove it swiftly. I hope this will be implemented swiftly through the Online Safety Bill which must be passed as soon as possible.” 
 
Merry Varney, partner at law firm Leigh Day, said: 

"The decision of HM Senior Coroner Walker to issue this report both to the Government and social media companies is very welcome and action to prevent further harm to children must be taken urgently. Material Molly viewed on Pinterest and Instagram glamourised and normalised self-harm, suicide and feelings of worthlessness and self-hate. It contributed to her death, yet similar or the same content remains accessible to children today and having felt the harmful impact myself and seen it in others, this report must lead to swift and meaningful steps otherwise other young lives will continue to be damaged by these global companies and their algorithms." 
 
The Molly Rose Foundation said:

“The Molly Rose Foundation (MRF) welcomes senior coroner Andrew Walker’s report to prevent future deaths and we hope social media companies will respond to his proposals within the 56 day time limit prescribed.

“MRF supports the coroner’s view that an independent regulator with sufficient powers to protect children and where necessary take proportionate sanctions against those who have failed in their duty of care, must be set up.

“We continue to call for the Online Safety Bill to be passed without further delay. This must be an utmost priority, it doesn’t have to be perfect and it can be fine-tuned and strengthened as needed. In any case, legislation will need to be fleet of foot to keep up with the pace of tech change.
Legislators must be bold enough to ‘move fast and mend things’ to help rebalance an industry that has neglected safety since its inception, too often at fatal cost to its users.”

Prevention of Future Deaths reports

 A PFD report (also known as a Regulation 28 report) allows a coroner to detail their concerns on issues that they believes could result in further deaths if action is not taken. It can be addressed to anyone that the coroner believes has the power to take such action to prevent future deaths, including government departments, organisations and private companies. Those that receive a PFD report are under a duty to respond within 56 day and their response must contain details of action taken or proposed to be taken, setting out a timetable for action. If no action is proposed then an explanation must be given.

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Merry Varney

Merry is a partner in the human rights department and head of the Leigh Day inquest group

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