LONDON: A 14-year-old British girl died from an act of self-harm while suffering from the “negative effects of online content”, a coroner said on Friday, in a case that shines a spotlight on social media companies.

Molly Russell was “exposed to material that may have influenced her in a negative way and, in addition, what had started as a depression had become a more serious depressive illness”, Andrew Walker ruled at a coroner’s court in London.

The teenager “died from an act of self-harm while suffering depression”, he said, but added it would not be “safe” to conclude it was suicide.

Some of the content she viewed was “particularly graphic” and “normalised her condition”, said Walker.

Of the 16,300 posts Russell saved, shared or liked on Instagram in the six-month period before her death, 2,100 related to depression, self-harm or suicide, the inquest was told.

Russell, from Harrow in north-west London, died in Nov 2017, leading her family to set up a campaign highlighting the dangers of social media.

“Molly was a thoughtful, sweet-natured, caring, inquisitive, selfless, beautiful individual — although a few words cannot possibly encapsulate our wonderful girl,” her father Ian said in a statement.

“We have heard a senior Meta (Instagram parent company) executive describe this deadly stream of content the platform’s algorithms pushed to Molly as ‘safe’ and not contravening the platform’s policies.

“If this demented trail of life-sucking content was safe, my daughter Molly would probably still be alive and looking forward to a life full of purpose and promise that lay ahead for our adorable Molly.”

Silicon Valley shockwaves

The week-long hearing became heated when the family’s lawyer, Oliver Sanders, took a Meta executive to task.

A visibly angry Sanders asked Elizabeth Lagone, the head of health and wellbeing at Meta, why the platform allowed children to use it when it was “allowing people to put potentially harmful content on it”.

“You are not a parent, you are just a business in America. You have no right to do that. The children who are opening these accounts don’t have the capacity to consent to this,” he said.

Published in Dawn, October 1st, 2022

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