Social media a factor in death of UK schoolgirl, inquest finds

The inquest into the death of British schoolgirl, Molly Russell, has concluded that social media was a factor in her demise, the BBC reports.

The 14-year-old had viewed thousands of pieces of content about self-harm and suicide on online platforms, including Instagram and Pinterest, prior to her death in November 2017.

Reaching a conclusion on the North London Coroner’s Court inquest into Russell’s death today, coroner Andrew Walker said the “negative effects of online content” were a factor in her death and such content “shouldn’t have been available for a child to see”.

The tragedy has led to a number of high level interventions by U.K. lawmakers, with Instagram boss Adam Mosseri being called in for talks with the then-health secretary, Matt Hancock, in 2019 to discuss the platform’s handling of content that promotes suicide and self harm.

The government has also claimed to be prioritizing children’s safety by putting it at the core of incoming content moderation legislation (aka the Online Safety Bill, which was presented to parliament as a first draft in May 2021). While an age appropriate design code also came into force in the U.K. last year — requiring platforms to apply recommended account settings for minors to protect them from profiling and other online safety risks.

In further remarks today, the coroner said: “It’s likely the material viewed by Molly… affected her mental health in a negative way and contributed to her death in a more than minimal way.”

“It would not be safe to leave suicide as a conclusion — she died from an act of self harm while suffering from depression and the negative effects of online content,” he added.

The BBC reports that the coroner will now compile a “prevention of future deaths” report setting out his concerns.

He will also write to the two social media firms which were ordered to give evidence, it said, and to the government and Ofcom, which is set for a major role regulating internet content under the Online Safety Bill.

Instagram and Pinterest

Executives from Meta, Instagram’s parent, and Pinterest were both ordered to testify at the inquest — which was shown material Russell had viewed on their platforms.

A child psychologist who gave evidence to the inquest earlier this month, described content the schoolgirl had engaged with online as “very disturbing” — and said it would “certainly affect her and made her feel more hopeless”, per earlier BBC reporting.

While, in his own testimony, Molly’s father, Ian Russell, described what he saw looking through her web history after her death as “the bleakest of worlds”. He also told the inquest that much of the “dark, graphic, harmful material” she had been able to view online seemed to “normalise” self-harm and suicide.

The schoolgirl’s use of social media extended to having accounts on other services including Twitter and YouTube, the inquest also heard.

Meta’s representative who gave evidence, Elizabeth Lagone — the tech giant’s head of health & well-being policy — defended posts about suicide and depression that the schoolgirl had seen on Instagram prior to her death, describing them as “safe” during testimony earlier this week.

The BBC also reports that Lagone told the inquest she thought it was “safe for people to be able to express themselves”; and that content the 14-year-old had viewed was “nuanced and complicated”.

Also giving evidence to the inquest, Pinterest’s Judson Hoffman — the photo-sharing platform’s global head of community operations — apologized for content the schoolgirl had seen, saying Pinterest had not been safe when she used it.

The inquest heard that the platform had emailed images to the schoolgirl prior to her death which contained headings such as “10 depression pins you might like” and “depression recovery, depressed girl and more pins trending on Pinterest” — notification emails that were presumably automatically generated with the content curation based on behavioral profiling of the schoolgirl’s activity on the platform.

In remarks following the coroner’s conclusion today, Meta said it would “carefully consider” his report when it sees it.

Here’s Meta’s statement:

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.”

Pinterest also sent us this statement:

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.

This summer’s change of U.K. prime minister and (yet another) ministerial reshuffle has led to a pause on the Online Safety Bill’s passage through parliament and a partial rethink around elements of the bill touching  ‘legal but harmful’ content. But today’s inquest verdict is likely to apply further pressure on the government to get the legislation through since the “distressing” material linked by the coroner to Russell’s death falls exactly in that greyer area.

The new secretary of state for digital, Michelle Donelan, stressed earlier this month that while the government does want changes to the bill around ‘legal but harmful’ content she said there won’t be any changes in planned restrictions for children — claiming kids’ online safety remains a core priority for new prime minister Liz Truss’ government.