Social media seen by teenager too extreme even for adults, coroner told

Social media content viewed by a teenager in the weeks before she took her own life is too disturbing for even an adult to look at for a long period of time, a coroner’s court has heard.

A pre-inquest review into the death of 14-year-old Molly Russell heard a huge volume of “pretty dreadful” Instagram posts have now been disclosed to the investigation by its parent company Facebook.

The teenager, from Harrow, north-west London, viewed content linked to anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide before ending her life in November 2017.

The inquest will look at how the algorithms used by social media giants to keep users hooked may have contributed to her death.

At a hearing at Barnet’s Coroner’s Court on Friday, Oliver Sanders QC said Facebook had recently released a “significant volume” of material relating to the case, but it was too difficult for even lawyers and police to look at for too long.

Mr Sanders said: “We haven’t be able to review it all yet, some of it is pretty dreadful and it is not something that can be reviewed in a long sitting and certainly not late at night.”

He said that certain sections of the material had been redacted and that the police and lawyers for Molly’s family were trying to get more information from the social media giant as to why.

The court heard that the investigation was seeking the cooperation of five social media companies, Snapchat, WhatsApp, Pinterest, Facebook and Twitter.

Mr Sanders said Snapchat could not disclose data without an order from a US court, WhatsApp has deleted Molly’s account and that Twitter was reluctant to handover material due to European data protection laws.

But he said the microblogging site had offered to reset Molly’s password if the police or her family were able to access the relevant email address.

Until recently, only Pinterest had cooperated fully, Mr Sanders said, disclosing about 10,000 pages of material.

The logos of social network sites Facebook and Twitter reflected in a pair of glasses (Dominic Lipinski/PA)
The logos of social network sites Facebook and Twitter reflected in a pair of glasses (Dominic Lipinski/PA)

The police were also able to download around 5,000 pages of material from Molly’s iPhone, including WhatsApp messages from her now-deleted account, the court heard.

Coroner Andrew Walker said “some or all” of the social media companies mentioned could be named as interested parties in the inquest.

He said representatives from the tech giants would be “best placed” to give technical information on how the algorithms used by their platforms push content towards users.

Mr Walker also asked for a psychologist with expertise in the potential psychological impacts viewing extreme material would have on a teenager be appointed to give evidence.

A further pre-inquest review was listed for November 26 at 2pm, while the date of the inquest itself is yet to be set.

Molly’s father Ian was seated in court.

Since his daughter’s death, Mr Russell has been a vocal campaigner for reform of social media platforms and set up the Molly Rose Foundation in her memory.

In a report by the Royal College of Psychiatrists published in January, he said: “Among the usual school friends, pop groups and celebrities followed by 14-year-olds, we found bleak depressive material, graphic self-harm content and suicide encouraging memes.

“I have no doubt that social media helped kill my daughter.”