The senior coroner examining the death of Molly Russell said the inquest should act as a catalyst to protect children from the risk the internet has brought into family homes.
Andrew Walker raised a range of concerns about the impact of social media on children, including the use of algorithms to push content to their accounts, lack of age verification and lack of content regulation.
Walker, who is chairing the inquest at North London Coroner’s Court, said it presented an opportunity to protect children from harmful content.
“Previously it was when a child walked through the front door of their house, it was in a safe place,” he said. “With the internet, we have introduced a source of risk into our homes and we have done so without appreciating the magnitude of that risk. And if there is any benefit that can come from this investigation, it must be recognizing that risk and take steps to ensure that the risk we have embraced in our home is kept completely away from children.
Molly, 14, from Harrow, north-west London, took her own life in November 2017 after viewing large amounts of content relating to suicide, self-harm, anxiety and depression on platforms social media, including Instagram and Pinterest.
The coroner said the two-week inquest had ‘provided a rare opportunity’ to see ‘how this risk has invaded every aspect of young people’s lives’.
He added: “This is an opportunity to make this part of the internet safe, and we must not lose it or let it slip away.”
Walker is expected to deliver his findings of fact and conclusions on Friday. A report on preventing future deaths, which asks parties to take action to prevent further deaths, is expected at a later date.
Other concerns raised by Walker on Thursday include the lack of separate sites for children and the lack of parental oversight of what children watch online.
In his submissions to the coroner on Thursday, the legal representative for the Russell family compared the impact of the digital revolution on children to that of the industrial revolution.
Oliver Sanders KC said: “It is a characteristic of all revolutions that they tend to put progress first and the safety of the vulnerable second.” Comparing the industrial and digital revolutions, he said children were the victims in both contexts.
Sanders criticized evidence provided by a senior executive at Instagram owner Meta. He said Elizabeth Lagone, head of health and wellness policy at Meta, was “often evasive” and refused to answer direct questions during two days of evidence during the inquest. On Monday, Lagone apologized after admitting Instagram showed posts by Molly that violated its content guidelines.
Meta’s legal representative, Caoilfhionn Gallagher KC, said she disagreed with Sanders’ description of the Meta executive’s evidence.
Arguing that the content Molly viewed caused or contributed to her death, Sanders pointed to messages quoted in notes found in her room after her death. Sanders said the posts were “litanies of self-loathing directly reflected in his notes almost verbatim.” He said that after shaping his thoughts, the messages then “shaped his actions”.
Gallagher said Meta was “prepared to listen carefully to any concerns” raised by the investigation, while Pinterest representative Andrew O’Connor KC said the platform was “committed to making improvements” in matters of security.
To R. @samaritans.ie. In the United States, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is at 800-273-8255 or by chat for help. You can also text HOME to 741741 to get in touch with a crisis text line counsellor. In Australia, the Lifeline crisis helpline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org
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