The ruling in a coroner’s court in north London on Friday will be felt around the world. The senior coroner, Andrew Walker, concluded that 14-year-old Molly Russell “died from an act of self-harm while suffering from depression and the negative effects of online content.”
The content, he determined, had contributed to her death in a more than minimal way. This is an immensely significant verdict.
First and foremost, it is significant for Molly’s family. Thanks to the incredible courage, bravery and determination of Molly’s father, Ian, and her family de ella, they finally have answers to what caused the death of the daughter and sister they adored. Answers that they had to fight for against the inscrutable indifference of tech companies.
But it has a wider significance.
Molly’s experience – which involved two companies pushing, recommending and promoting material – reduced many in the court to tears. And it forced the admission of one expert witness that he had been unable to sleep well for weeks after reviewing the material. It’s the kind of experience that thousands of children have endured and are currently enduring. Both of our organisations, the NSPCC and 5Rights, work with young people who have to rebuild their lives after harm and abuse. These young people are the collateral damage of a “move fast and break things” culture in the tech industry, where tragedy is met with a wilful corporate blindness.
This must be a turning point for Silicon Valley. The transparency of the court process has shone a light on how the commercial and design decisions of tech platforms result in real-world harm. The world is watching.
The government now has the chance to fulfill what has become a somewhat jaded promise: to make Britain the “safer place in the world” to be on the internet, by bringing forward the online safety bill, ensuring that the changes needed to protect children are enshrined in law.
For families like Molly’s, and the countless anonymous, voiceless families who have carried the cost of industry’s negligence, the online safety bill must deliver regulation that embeds children’s safety at the heart of every social media site. It needs to be a robust piece of legislation that sets out children’s rights and needs in enforceable codes of practice, which ensure child safety is not optional but simply a price of doing business – just like any other sector.
It is time to ensure that child safety is at the top of the corporate inbox, ahead of profit or indeed any other consideration. Basic product safety is the aim. We, along with others in our sector, have worked for many years to codify and explain what is necessary. What we need is for the government to make a law that is a fit testimony to the extraordinary efforts of the Russell family.
Children want, need and must be online. It is how they learn, access entertainment and socialize. But if it is not optional then it must be a world they can engage with in the knowledge that their safety has been considered. That’s why the online safety bill is needed now. It’s been five years since Molly’s death from her. It’s also been five years that we have been waiting for new online safety laws. During that time countless young people will have struggled to deal with toxicity and been exposed to harm thanks to the design choices of tech firms. It is time now to take what we know and make it better for future generations – in Molly’s name.
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123, or email [email protected] or [email protected] In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at befrienders.org.
Sir Peter Wanless is the chief executive of the NSPCC. Lady Beeban Kidron is the founder and chair of 5 Rights
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism