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Molly Russell’s family call for urgent changes to online safety

The family of 14-year-old Molly Russell have called for urgent changes to make children safe online after the inquest into her death concluded that depressive social media posts contributed to her death in a more than minimal way.

Posted on 30 September 2022

Senior Coroner Andrew Walker recorded a narrative conclusion. He said Molly Rose Russell died from an act of self-harm while suffering depression and the negative effects of online content.

He said Molly appeared a normal healthy girl who was flourishing at school, having settled well into secondary school life and displayed an enthusiastic interest in the Performing Arts.

However, Molly had become depressed, a common condition affecting children of this age.

Molly Russell.

The coroner said: “This then worsened into a depressive illness. Molly subscribed to a number of online sites. At the time that these sites were viewed by Molly some of these sites were not safe as they allowed access to adult content that should not have been available for a 14-year-old child to see. 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.

“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 of Molly. Some of this content romanticised acts of self- harm by young people on themselves.

"Other content sought to isolate and discourage discussion with those who may have been able to help.

“Molly turned to celebrities for help, not realising there was little prospect of a reply.

"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.

"The sites normalised her condition, focusing on a limited and irrational view without any counterbalance of normality.

“It is likely that the above 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, from Harrow in North London died on 21 November 2017. The inquest heard that she had been accessing thousands of social media posts on Instagram and Pinterest related to depression, self-harm and suicide in the months before she died. She also reached out to celebrities on Twitter with pleas for support.

At the inquest representatives from both Meta and Pinterest apologised for the content that Molly viewed. Jud Hoffman, head of community operations at Pinterest admitted to the coroner that the site was “not safe” when Molly was using it in 2017.

Meta’s head of health and wellbeing Elizabeth Lagone said she believed that the vast majority of the posts that Molly had been viewing were safe when she viewed them, although despite this Meta has changed its Instagram content policies since Molly’s death.

Following the conclusion of the inquest the Russell family said:

“Molly was a thoughtful, sweet-natured, caring, inquisitive, selfless, beautiful individual. Although a few words cannot possibly encapsulate our wonderful girl.

“Molly wanted all those she loved to live long and stay strong, we’d like to widen that invitation to include anyone who may be needing help. To anyone who has been affected by the issues raised in Molly’s inquest, to anyone struggling, please remember that help is available, please find a way to seek it out, please take care when online.

“This past fortnight has been particularly painful for our family, we’re missing Molly more agonisingly than usual, but we hope that the scrutiny this case has received will help prevent similar deaths encouraged by the disturbing content that is still to this day available on social media platforms including those run by Meta.

“Through the inquest we have seen just a fraction of the Instagram posts seen by my 14-year-old daughter, Molly in 2017.

  • Posts which were too disturbing for some to see in court.
  • Posts that are not allowed to be broadcast.
  • Posts that caused an expert psychiatrist weeks of poor sleep.
  • And posts the Senior Coroner has now concluded contributed to Molly’s death.

“We have heard a senior Meta executive describe this deadly stream of content the platform’s algorithms pushed to Molly, as ‘SAFE’ and not contravening the platform’s policies.

“If this demented trail of life-sucking content was safe, my daughter Molly would probably still be alive and instead of being a bereaved family of four, there would be five of us looking forward to a life full of purpose and promise that lay ahead for our adorable Molly.

“It’s time the toxic corporate culture at the heart of the world’s biggest social media platform changed.

“It’s time for the government’s Online Safety Bill to urgently deliver its long-promised legislation.

“It’s time to protect our innocent young people, instead of allowing platforms to prioritise their profits by monetising their misery.

“For the first time today, tech platforms have been formally held responsible for the death of a child. In the future, we as a family hope that any other social media companies called upon to assist an inquest follow the example of Pinterest, who have taken steps to learn lessons and have engaged sincerely and respectfully with the inquest process.

“This landmark conclusion has only been possible thanks to the extraordinary work of a team of people:

“Firstly, I’d like to thank Senior Coroner Andrew Walker for his determination to learn what we can from Molly’s tragedy. The Russell family’s legal team have spent too many long hours examining thousands of pages of disturbing evidence, without Merry Varney, our solicitor from Leigh Day and paralegal Caleb Bawdon, Jessica Elliott our Barrister, and Oliver Sanders our KC from 1 Crown Office Row, and a host of others working hard to build this case, we would not know how harmful our unregulated online world is. I hope the data gathered may prove useful beyond this courtroom and continue to help create a safer web.

“The support we have received from family, friends and supporters has been vital to us. And thank you to the press who have so sensitively covered this story so that the lessons we’ve learned have been reported responsibly and hopefully they will travel far.

“For Molly’s sake…let’s make the online world a place that prioritises the safety and wellbeing of young people over the money that can be made from them. And for anyone struggling I will say again, please reach out to real people who can help. Please don’t forget, there’s always hope.”

Merry Varney, partner representing the family from law firm Leigh Day, added:

“The last two weeks, and indeed the very long road since the death of much loved Molly, underline the importance of inquests and the strength of a Coroner’s investigation when done properly.

“Molly’s family have faced considerable hurdles and are grateful to Senior Coroner Andrew Walker for his persistence in helping them obtain as much information about Molly’s online experiences as possible.

“The battles bereaved families face when seeking answers from social media companies are immense and even with the Senior Coroner taking a robust approach, it was only in August this year that Meta provided over 1200 Instagram posts Molly engaged with, less than a month before the inquest started. This included some of the most distressing videos and posts that Molly engaged with.

“Seeking to find out how your loved one died should never be a battle, and Molly’s family have welcomed the transparency shown by Pinterest, as well as their acceptance and apology for the deeply harmful material Molly was able to access.

“The Coroner’s finding that Molly’s death was contributed to by the negative effects of online content, having heard evidence about what Molly viewed and engaged with on Instagram and Pinterest, reflect the views of Molly’s family, those who knew her best and loved her the most. We all owe this incredibly brave family a debt of gratitude and together with them I hope the conclusion that children’s lives remain at risk is acted upon urgently - so that tech giants can no longer invite them onto wholly unsafe and harmful platforms.”

The Molly Russell Foundation board of trustees said:

“The MRF welcomes the verdict of the inquest into the death of Molly Russell. At its heart, this is about online safety. The inquest has demonstrated very clearly the significant dangers social media platforms such as
Instagram, Twitter and Pinterest present in the absence of any effective regulation.

“This shows that if government and tech platforms take action on the issues raised in the inquest, it will have a positive effect on the mental well-being of young people, which is the key aim of the Molly Rose Foundation.

“Platforms must stop profiling children in order to serve them harmful content – even if they have the right to host that content for adult users, who can be vulnerable too.

“Things need to change. Social media platforms have proven they are not willing to make themselves safe without legislative action hence it is vital that the Online Safety Bill is passed without delay and that an era of accountability is ushered in. For social media, the Wild West era is over.

“The need for speedy regulation is reflected by recent statistics which indicate four school age children die every week by suicide.

“It’s almost five years since Molly died and we are still waiting for the promised government legislation. We can’t wait any longer; don’t aim for perfection, too many lives are at risk. The regulatory structure can be perfected in the months and years to come.”

Background

Molly was found dead in her bedroom on 21 November 2017. Her family told the inquest that Molly had been quieter and withdrawn in the year before her death but that they had always spoken about things and asked her if she was ok, which she reassured them she was. In the couple of months before her death Molly seemed to turn a corner and become brighter.

During the inquest, videos and images seen by Molly were played to the court after discussion as to whether they should be edited, the coroner declined, giving his “greatest warning” about the videos “of the most distressing nature”, saying: “Molly had no such choice, so we would in effect be editing the footage for adult viewing when it was available in an unedited form for a child.”

The inquest heard evidence from Elizabeth Lagone, head of health and wellbeing for Meta, the parent company of Instagram, who was asked about the safety of the material viewed by Molly on Instagram, much of which her family argued encouraged self-harm and suicide.

In 2016, at the time Molly started using Instagram, the platform began using a content ranking algorithm which determined what users would see in their feed.

Ms Lagone defended the platform throughout her evidence, describing much of the content Molly viewed as “admissive” and told the court she thought that it was “safe for people to be able to express themselves”. She said Instagram was a place of community where people care for each other.

She conceded that two posts shown to the inquest would have violated Instagram’s policies, and apologised that these posts had been seen by Molly.

When asked by the coroner if she thought the material viewed by Molly, which the family considered to be “encouraging” suicide or self-harm, was safe she said “yes, it is safe”.

Pinterest’s head of community operations, Judson Hoffman, admitted to the inquest that the platform was “not safe” at the time Molly was using it. He said he “deeply regrets” the posts she viewed on Pinterest before her death, saying it was material he would “not show to my children”. He said the way the platform handles depiction as opposed to promotion has now changed. He admitted that harmful content likely still exists on the site but that it is “safe but imperfect”.

The corner’s independent expert, child psychologist Dr Navin Venugopal, described the material seen by Molly before she died as “very disturbing, distressing”, and the material that kept him up at night had no “positive benefit”. He concluded that it would “certainly affect her and made her feel more hopeless”. He told the inquest that the material was “not safe” for Molly to have accessed and that she suffered harm as a result. He added that it had left him unable to sleep properly for weeks.

Molly’s father, Ian Russell told the court that he believed social media had helped kill his daughter.

He said when he viewed the material that Molly had viewed before her death he was deeply shocked by the “hideous, graphic harmful content” and the number of publicly available posts of hopelessness and despair. He said he had no idea a child could see such dark material on a global platform and could feel himself becoming depressed and distressed by a form of language designed to isolate people. He said he believed thousands of likes on these posts encouraged normalisation.

Following Molly’s death her family continued to receive social media emails promoting depressing content.

In 2018 Molly’s family set up the Molly Rose Foundation, a charity which aims support young people under the age of 25 and connect them to the help and support they need.

More information can be found at https://mollyrosefoundation.org/, including signposting to trusted sources of support and help.

If you are affected by the reporting of the inquest proceedings, please visit the “Where to Find Help” section of the website for a list of trusted support organisations. With other mental health charities we have put together some mental wellbeing resources and guides that we feel may be of use at this time. They can be found on our Mental Wellbeing Resource page.

If you’re struggling just text MRF to 85258 so you can speak to a trained volunteer from Shout, the UK’s Crisis Text Line service.

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Merry Varney
Court of Protection Human rights Inquests Judicial review

Merry Varney

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

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Caleb Bawdon (1)
Human rights Inquests Judicial review

Caleb Bawdon

Caleb is an associate solicitor in the human rights department

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