Bereaved parents ask government to amend online safety bill

Five families whose children died by suicide want to amend the new legislation to allow bereaved parents access to their child’s account

7th December 2022 about a 3 minute read
“There is a dire need for managing this process to make it more straightforward, more compassionate and more efficient. The experience of living through Molly’s prolonged inquest is something that no family should have to endure.” Ian Russell, Bereaved Parents for Online Safety campaigner

Campaigners have urged the government to introduce laws that will allow bereaved parents to access children’s social media accounts in cases where the child’s death is linked to social media.

A group of five families are supporting an amendment to the Online Safety Bill, proposed by Baroness Kidron, which would force technology companies such as Meta, which owns Facebook and Instagram, to open the child’s account to parents and coroners, or face multimillion pound fines. They would have to hand over the content in a timeframe set by the coroner. The families include Ian Russell, whose 14-year old daughter Molly died by suicide after she viewed social media content relating to suicide and self-harm.

The Bill has returned to the Commons for debate after a six-month delay, and will now complete its report and committee stages. Government ministers have published a new version of the bill, which includes proposals to force social media firms to bar under-aged children, with heavy fines if they don’t comply.

Social media firms ‘obstructed’ parents

Russell, who has fought for five years to uncover 16,000 posts of self-harm, anxiety and suicide that Molly received in the six months before her death, said: “We can no longer leave bereaved families and coroners at the mercy of social media companies. There is a dire need for managing this process to make it more straightforward, more compassionate and more efficient. The experience of living through Molly’s prolonged inquest, is something that no family should have to endure.”

The bereaved parents say that social media firms “obstructed” many of their attempts to secure data to reveal who their children contacted, how multiple posts were driven to their accounts by algorithms and the details of the graphic content, including information about how to take their own life, that they viewed.

The parents have formed a group, Bereaved Parents for Online Safety, which will campaign for greater protections for children on social media.

Baroness Kidron said: “These families suffer agony trying to uncover what their children were looking at in the days and weeks leading up to their deaths, and how much of the material was recommended to them through the algorithms used by tech companies to maximise profits. We need to end the tech sector’s tactics of obfuscation and create a transparent, independent process for all to avoid further tragedies of this kind.”

Maeve Walsh, an associate of the Carnegie UK Trust, a charity promoting wellbeing, said the trust welcomed the bill: “The experience of Molly Russell’s family exposed the huge power imbalance between social media platforms and the information they hold on the use of their services and the families of bereaved children, whose safety and mental health was harmed by the design of those services and the way information and content was fed to them. The Online Safety Bill is a long overdue, necessary step on the road to rebalancing this relationship, making the platforms more accountable for the way their systems and processes work and more transparent about the data they hold on its impact, particularly on the young and vulnerable.”

FCC Insight

There is still much debate about the harms caused to young people by social media. It appears to be the case that high social media use is correlated with poorer mental health, but we cannot be sure which way the causation goes. There are, however, a number of cases where it has been clear that young people who have died by suicide have been exposed to harmful content on social media – whether that is bullying, or content relating to self-harm or suicide. In some cases, this content seems to have been “pushed” to the young person by the platform’s algorithm. It seems actively cruel of social media companies to deny parents the right to access the content their children were viewing before their death, and we agree with campaigners that these companies should be legally obliged to provide that access. But we also believe there is much more technology companies can be doing to prevent young people viewing harmful content in the first place. The Online Safety Bill is an imperfect solution, but we hope it forces social media giants to begin addressing this problem.