“Negative effects of online content” was a contributing factor in the death of a British school girl who took her own life in 2017, a coroner concluded on Friday.
Coroner Andrew Walker, who made the conclusion, said the ruling is “the first time” that “tech platforms have been formally held responsible for the death of a child.”
Molly Russell, a 14-year-old girl from Harrow, northwest London, who her father said showed no obvious signs of mental illness, took her own life on Nov. 21, 2017, after viewing online content related to depression and self-harm for months.
Following a five-year inquest, Walker, who presided over the inquest, told North London Coroner’s Court that it “would not be safe to leave suicide as a conclusion.”
The teenage girl “died from an act of self-harm while suffering depression and the negative effects of online content,” Walker concluded.
In January 2019, more than a year after Molly’s death, her father Ian Russell told The Times of London that the family had found several dozens of Instagram accounts Molly had followed with tags such as sad, lonely, or depressed, and the one they looked at had graphic self-harming images.
He also said Pinterest had sent the teen automated messages recommending depression-related content based on her browsing history.
After failing to request big tech firms release all information they had held on the teen’s accounts, Ian Russell enlisted Walker’s help to obtain the information.
The inquest into Molly’s death was delayed until Sept. 20 this year due to a number of delays.
Delivering his conclusions on Friday, Walker said 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,” he said.
Walker said some content “romanticised acts of self-harm by young people on themselves,” while other content “sought to isolate and discourage discussion with those who may have been able to help.”
Following the inquest, Ian Russell described Molly as a “thoughtful, sweet-natured, caring, inquisitive, selfless, beautiful individual” who “wanted all those she loved to live long and stay strong,” referring to one of her last notes.
“We’d like to widen that invitation to include anyone who may be needing help,” he said.
“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.”
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,” she said.
“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.”
The ruling on Friday was followed by a fresh push to pass the government’s Online Safety Bill, which was delayed due to concerns over some of its provisions on vaguely defined “legal but harmful” content that critics say will curtail the freedom of speech.
Charity National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children Chief Executive Sir Peter Wanless said the bill offered a chance to achieve the “step change” needed to protect children on the internet.
Lucy Powell, Labour’s shadow digital and culture Secretary, said Molly’s death “should force action from government and social media companies to make the internet safe for children.”
“It is 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,” she said, referring to Prime Minister Liz Truss’s statement earlier this month that the government will tweak the bill to “make sure free speech is allowed” while protecting children from harm.
“Without measures on legal but harmful content in the bill, likely none of the suicide and self-harm content that Molly found online would be dealt with,” she said.
“Enough is enough. Children must be kept safe online. The government should bring forward the full Online Safety Bill at the earliest opportunity.”
Culture Secretary Michelle Donelan said the inquest showed the “horrific failure of social media platforms to put the welfare of children first” and that the government will use the Online Safety Bill and the “full force of the law” to hold social media companies to account.
Crossbench Peer Baroness Beeban Kidron said she will propose an amendment to the bill to “make it easier for bereaved parents to access information from social media companies.”
PA Media contributed to this report.