God save us from the wicked social media giants

If I could push a button that meant social media was never invented, I would in an instant. Parents like me who have watched a child suffer mental health problems triggered by the emotional crack cocaine being distributed by California’s predatory algorithm dealers feel so helpless. “Put down your phone,” we ask. But a telephone is not just a telephone. It’s her whole world. How do you confiscate a world?

The inquest into the death of Molly Russell at Coroner’s Court in north London has brought a long overdue moment of reckoning. Molly, 14, killed herself in November 2017 after viewing a large amount of suicide, depression and self-harm-related content online, particularly on Instagram and Pinterest. Of the 16,300 posts Molly saved, shared, or liked on Instagram in the six months before her death, 2,100 were related to depression, cuts, or suicide. (“A litany of self-loathing,” according to the Russells’ attorney.)

As a journalist, I am not allowed to report specific details of a suicide or to suggest that suicides might be related. That’s right. Young people in particular are known to have a tendency to imitate. But an anxious schoolgirl had access to what child psychiatrist Navin Venugopal called “very disturbing and upsetting” images in her bedroom. dr Venugopal told the court he couldn’t sleep for weeks after seeing what Molly saw.

One of the social media giants’ most heinous arguments is that graphic or romanticized content (which Molly’s family says “encourages suicide”) is “safe” because it helps vulnerable youth get support and “for people are sure of being able to express themselves”.

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How grimly gratifying it was to see senior officials from Meta (formerly Facebook) and Pinterest forced to descend from their all-knowing, gilded heights to a drab community building in Chipping Barnet and there to apologize for the tragic consequences of their powerful dealings. Elizabeth Lagone, Meta’s director of health and wellbeing, was asked by Coroner Andrew Walker, “What gives you the right” to make decisions about what material is safe for children? Lagone said the site works “closely with experts” and that decisions are not “made in a vacuum”.

What expert decisions do you think have been influenced by Meta’s research into the impact of Instagram on young people’s mental health? According to former employee and whistleblower Frances Haugen, an internal report concluded that the platform was harmful to up to 20 percent of teenage girls using the app. Instagram has also been shown to increase fears related to physical attractiveness, social image, money, and even suicide risk. “This response was unprompted and consistent across groups,” the report said.

Gosh, that sounds really “safe” doesn’t it? Molly’s father, Ian Russell, has spoken with devastating eloquence about the dark internet “ghetto” in which his “positive, happy, bright” teenager has become enmeshed. There was no escape. Pinterest continued to send emails to Molly after her death promoting depressive content.

When I was in my early 20s, a dear friend from college killed herself. For a disturbed few days, the line between life and death that was usually so absolute felt like nothing. If Cath had walked through that door, how easy it would have been to follow her, I thought at least in my unreasonable grief. I’m glad I wasn’t able to make a phone call and access helpful suicide tips while my own mind was temporarily unbalanced. This danger persists for young people today because billionaires are not spending the money needed to rid their product of twisted content that would be odious and banned for any newspaper or television network.

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I don’t know what the coroner’s verdict will be tomorrow morning. I believe Molly Russell would be alive today were it not for the highly lucrative and damaging algorithms of Instagram and Pinterest.

God help all our dear daughters. And deliver them from Meta.

As the madness on planet earth increases, there’s an opportunity to join me and Liam Halligan for a live recording of Planet Normal on October 19th at the IET in London. Our guests are the brilliant author Lionel Shriver, who will also be autographing copies of her new book, and the man who proves there is still hope for conservatism, Lord (David) Frost. You can ask us any questions as part of our live Q&A. For more information and bookings go to: extra.telegraph.co.uk/events/live-planet-normal-event-oct