Molly Russell death: Instagram was 'blind' to teen, 14, 'liking' over 2,000 posts on self-harm

Molly Russell death: Instagram was 'blind' to teen, 14, 'liking' over 2,000 posts on self-harm
Molly Russell killed herself after liking over 2,000 suicidal posts on Instagram and Pinterest (BBC News screenshot/YouTube; Carl Court and Rich Polk/Getty Images for Pinterest)

Warning: This article includes comments about suicide and depression that could be traumatic for some readers. Discretion is advised.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

HARROW, LONDON: Before she took her own life, schoolgirl Molly Russell, 14, had liked more than 2,000 pictures of depression, suicide and self-harm on various social media platforms. However, an inquest heard on September 29 that Instagram and Pinterest were "ignorantly blind" to their role in her death. In the last six months of her life in 2017, Molly saved and "liked" 2,100 photographs on Instagram that dealt with sadness, self-harm and suicide. Since Molly's demise, her family has advocated for improved internet security and stricter regulations on online material that encourages suicide and self-harm.

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After hiding her "demons" from her family and seeing hundreds of distressing posts and videos, the 14-year-old from Harrow, northwest London, died in 2017. Academic studies demonstrate that this kind of damaging content develops, promotes and normalizes poor self-beliefs and worthlessness, the family's attorney Oliver Sanders KC told the North London Coroner's Court. “It encourages a false sense of belonging to a community that certainly can't do anything to help. The platforms did not know her age and did not know what the content was, they were ignorantly blind, without thought, without control. We submit that this caused her harm and contributed towards her death,” he said as reported by Daily Mail. 

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After reaching his final conclusions on Molly's death, coroner Andrew Walker is required to draft a report targeted at averting future catastrophes. “We have a uniquely detailed picture of Molly's internet use. It is wrong to think that future inquests would be able to do the same, so we must take the opportunity to make detailed findings,” Walker stated. The information from Molly's Instagram account would not have been accessible to her parents if she hadn't signed into her emails on a home computer. According to the family's attorney, it took more than 1,000 hours to evaluate, compile and triangulate the web evidence for Molly's inquest.

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The content Molly watched was "manifestly unsafe," according to Sanders and "on the balance of probabilities it caused or contributed to her death." He made this suggestion to the coroner. He told the court that the information she read contained a "litany of self-hate" that was "nearly word for word reflected in her notes," implying that it "shaped her actions." Dr Navin Venugopal, a child psychologist, claimed that some of the material she watched was so upsetting that it made him "unable to sleep for a few weeks."

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(Representative image; Maria Korneeva/Getty Images)
A child psychologist claimed that some of the material she watched was so upsetting that it made him 'unable to sleep for a few weeks.' Representative image; Maria Korneeva/Getty Images)

When asked what the effect viewing the materials Molly viewed had, Dr Venugopal, said, "I had to see it over a short period of time and it was very disturbing, distressing. There were periods where I was not able to sleep well for a few weeks so bearing in mind that the child saw this over a period of months I can only say that she was (affected) - especially bearing in mind that she was a depressed 14-year-old. It would certainly affect her and made her feel more hopeless.” Dr Venugopal added: “I am of the opinion that it is likely that Miss Russell was placed at risk through accessing self-harm material on social media websites and using the internet. There was a risk to Miss Russell's health and mental state by looking at self-harm related content.”

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Molly's headteacher, Sue Maguire, from Hatch End High School in Harrow, spoke before the inquest. In addition to discussing the difficulties of using large social media sites, she addressed how difficult it is to recognize an illness in a youngster like Molly. “There is a level where I want to say it is almost impossible to keep track of social media, but we have to try to react as speedily as possible,” she said according to Daily Mail. When asked whether the school was aware of the suicide and self-harm-related information accessible to children like Molly on websites like Instagram,  Maguire replied, “At the time, we were shocked when we saw it. But to say that we were completely shocked would be wrong because we had been warning young people about the dangers of social media for a long time.”

While Pinterest's attorney, Andrew O'Connor KC, stated that the platform was "committed to making improvements in this area," Caoilfhionn Gallagher KC, speaking on behalf of Meta, stated that the firm "is ready to listen carefully to any concerns." Sanders, the attorney for the Russell family, similarly connected the "unsafe practices" of the "digital revolution," saying that "children are the victims." Additionally, he asked the coroner to include specific factual findings when he renders his decision because the matter had attracted "particularly strong public interest." At the inquest, both the head of health and well-being at Instagram's parent company Meta and the head of community operations at Pinterest apologized for the information Molly viewed. An executive at Meta Elizabeth Lagone asserted that she thought the teen wasn't at risk while viewing the messages that the Russell family claimed "encouraged" suicide. 

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