A London coroner has ruled that a 14-year-old girl’s 2017 death was a suicide that resulted from harmful social media posts.
The ruling came Friday at the conclusion of a judicial inquiry, or inquest, into Molly Russell’s death five years ago, according to The Molly Rose Foundation (MRF), which was established in the 14-year-old’s memory with the goal of preventing suicide among people under 25.
Coroner Andrew Walker of the Northern District of Greater London said her death was “an act of self harm while suffering from depression and the negative effects of online content.”
Walker said the online material Molly viewed on platforms including Instagram and Pinterest “was not safe” and “should not have been available for a child to see.”
The ruling was the first of its kind to place direct blame for a child’s death on social media rather than only correlation between the two.
“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,” MRF said in a statement Friday. “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,” the statement said. “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.”
In response to the ruling, Molly’s father, Ian Russell, said Friday “there is always hope” no matter how “dark it seems.”
“[I]f you’re struggling, please speak to someone you trust or one of the many support organizations, rather than engage with online content that may be harmful,” he said, according to MRF.
“Thank you, Molly, for being my daughter. Thank you,” Russell added. “We should not be sitting here. This should not happen because it does not need to happen. We told this story in the hope that change would come about.”
A spokeswoman for Meta, the parent company for Facebook and Instagram, said in a statement that the company is “committed to ensuring that Instagram is a positive experience for everyone, particularly teenagers,” and would “carefully consider the coroner’s full report.”
Pinterest apologized for the content it promoted to Molly via email, which included “10 depression pins you might like” and “depression recovery, depressed girl and more pins trending on Pinterest,” according to the BBC.
The ruling garnered national and international attention. Even Prince William issued a statement on the matter.
“No parent should ever have to endure what Ian Russell and his family have been through,” William tweeted from the official Prince and Princess of Wales account. “They have been so incredibly brave. Online safety for our children and young people needs to be a prerequisite, not an afterthought.”
Social media and video-sharing platforms contain content showing suicidal ideation, self-harm material and general reflections on depression, according to the U.K.’s National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC). Young users can be prompted by this type of content, along with more mainstream content featuring videos and images of their peers as well as influencers and models, to make flawed comparisons between themselves and the material they view online.
“The ruling should send shockwaves through Silicon Valley – tech companies must expect to be held to account when they put the safety of children second to commercial decisions. The magnitude of this moment for children everywhere cannot be understated,” NSPCC Executive Director Sir Peter Wanless said in a statement. “Molly’s family will forever pay the price of Meta and Pinterest’s abject failure to protect her from content no child should see, but the Online Safety Bill is a once-in-a-generation opportunity to reverse this imbalance between families and big tech.”
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