Social media firms must no longer treat online safety as an “afterthought”, the Prince of Wales said on Friday night, after a landmark inquest into the death of Molly Russell.
The 14-year-old took her own life in November 2017 after months of bingeing on what her father, Ian, described as a “demented trail of life-sucking content” relating to suicide and self-harm on platforms including Instagram and Pinterest.
Andrew Walker, the senior coroner, ended the Russell family’s five-year wait for answers by concluding that, instead of suicide, Molly “died from an act of self-harm while suffering from depression and the negative effects of online content”.
It prompted the Prince to make a public intervention calling for greater safety for children online.
He wrote on his official Twitter account: “No parent should ever have to endure what Ian Russell and his family have been through. They have been so incredibly brave.
“Online safety for our children and young people needs to be a prerequisite, not an afterthought.”
The Prince has previously spoken out against the world’s biggest social media firms, saying in 2018 that they were failing to protect children and accusing them of not wanting “to own this issue”.
No parent should ever have to endure what Ian Russell and his family have been through. They have been so incredibly brave. Online safety for our children and young people needs to be a prerequisite, not an afterthought. W
— The Prince and Princess of Wales (@KensingtonRoyal) September 30, 2022
Friday’s ruling - the first of its kind globally - represents a major blow to the tech giants, but police and prosecutors are currently powerless to take any criminal action against them over the case.
Mr Russell and charities including the NSPCC called for ministers to “urgently” bring forward long-delayed plans to impose a legal duty on social media firms to protect children.
Prime Minister Liz Truss commented: "I will look very, very carefully at that very concerning issue. We do need to make sure and I am committed to bringing forward and progressing with the Online Harms bill."
Michelle Donelan, the digital secretary, warned that the Government would soon use “the full force of the law” to make sure young people are protected from “horrendous” online material.
“The Wild West era is over,” said a statement from the trustees of the Molly Rose Foundation, set up by the Russell family in the schoolgirl’s memory.
“We can’t wait any longer; don’t aim for perfection, too many lives are at risk.”
Following the hearing at North London Coroner’s Court, Mr Russell called for the “toxic corporate culture at the heart of the world’s biggest social media platforms” to change.
He accused the platforms of not taking steps to protect “our innocent young people”, instead prioritising profits “by monetising their misery”.
Asked if he had a message for Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Instagram’s parent company Meta, Mr Russell said: “A simple message to Mark would be just to listen. Listen to the people that use his platform, listen to the conclusions the coroner gave at this inquest, and then do something about it.”
The inquest heard that Molly viewed thousands of distressing videos and images - including suicide depictions and self-harm guides - on social media in the months before her death.
The coroner said the algorithms used by the social media platforms led to unsafe content being “selected and provided” to Molly without her requesting them, which likely had a “negative effect” on her mental health.
“Some of this content romanticised acts of self-harm by young people on themselves; others content sought to isolate and discourage discussion with those who may have been able to help,” the coroner said.
He added: “It is likely that the above material viewed by Molly, already suffering with a depressive illness and vulnerable due to her age, affected her mental health in a negative way and contributed to her death in a more than minimal way.”
Instagram was the final app she accessed, at 12.45am on Nov 21, 2017. She was dead within an hour or two, her family believes.
Senior executives from Meta, which owns Instagram, and Pinterest, the picture-sharing website, apologised for the harrowing material Molly saw after flying from the US to give evidence.
Judson Hoffman, from Pinterest, admitted that at the time the teenager was using the site it was unsafe for children.
The NSPCC said the inquest would send “shockwaves through Silicon Valley” and echoed the family’s calls for the Government to put the flagship Online Safety Bill into law.
The new law could see social media firms hit with multi-billion pound fines of up to 10 per cent of their turnover if they fail to protect users, specifically children, from harm including suicide content and sexual abuse.
Ms Donelan said: “The details of the events which led to Molly’s death are undeniably heartbreaking. The inquest has shown the horrific failure of social media platforms to put the welfare of children first.
“We owe it to Molly’s family to do everything in our power to stop this happening to others. Our Online Safety Bill is the answer and through it, we will use the full force of the law to make social media firms protect young people from horrendous pro-suicide material.”
A spokesman for Meta said: “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.”
A spokesman for Pinterest said: “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.”