Molly Russell tragedy will recur as social media bombards children with self-harm content

Molly Russell
Molly Russell

Children are still being bombarded with content promoting self-harm on social media sites which could lead to a repeat of the Molly Russell tragedy, the Children’s Commissioner has warned.

Rachel de Souza will on Thursday publish research showing 45 per cent of children aged eight to 17 are seeing “upsetting and worrying” harmful content including material promoting self-harm, often driven to them by social media firms’ algorithms without them seeking it out.

Speaking exclusively to The Telegraph she said: “It included anonymous trolling, diet restriction - that’s boys as well as girls - pornography, self-harm, sexualised images and violent and gory content.

“This content shouldn’t be available to children of this age and the tech companies should be making sure it’s taken down. I am concerned about the firms’ business model, the algorithms, if you like, where children see these things or click on the site, then they end up getting more of that material.”

Asked if there was still a risk of a repeat of the case of Molly, 14, who took her own life after viewing self-harm and suicide content, Ms de Souza said: “I think it absolutely could and can happen.

“I look at my own time as a head teacher, and I’ve seen the most dreadful things happen for children who’ve been targeted with social media information that they really shouldn’t have had at times where they were extremely vulnerable and the outcome has been awful. It still is the case and that’s why we need action.”

She added: “Molly was on all those sites and it wasn’t taken down. This just brings it home. Just what our children have been seeing [on social media] and what upsetting and worrying means.”

Her research, based on 2,000 children aged eight to 17 and parents, covered seven platforms, with two-thirds of parents most concerned about what their children might see on TikTok. The company was this week told by the Information Commissioner it faced a potential £27 million fine for endangering children online.

The research showed one in 12 of the children exposed to “upsetting” self-harm content saw it on TikTok, Twitter and Facebook in the past month. Nearly one in five (18 per cent) said they had been victims of anonymous trolling on Twitter, followed by 17 per cent on Facebook and 15 per cent on TikTok.

YouTube the worst for violent or gory content

TikTok was the worst for the proportion of the children seeing “worrying or upsetting” sexualised images, at 15 per cent, followed by Snapchat and Instagram (12 per cent). YouTube was the worst for violent or gory content, at 14 per cent, followed by TikTok (12 per cent).

Ms de Souza revealed two-thirds of a group of twenty 14 and 15-year-olds that she had been speaking to had seen beheading videos. “The companies need to do far more in terms of taking down material that’s inappropriate for under 18s and making sure under 18s don’t receive it,” she said.

They have the technology. They know how to do this, and they really do need to do it. They need to step up, show some moral purpose and do this.”

Ms de Souza said she wanted 100 per cent age verification or assurance to prevent underaged children from accessing sites designed for teenagers or adults. Across the seven platforms, between 36 per cent and 79 per cent of children on them were under their minimum age requirement.

“I speak to so many eight, nine, 10-year-olds who are seeing things that really upset them on social media, and they shouldn’t be on social media. The companies have got very sophisticated AI, they know who’s underage, and they need to sort that out,” she said.

She is also demanding a new complaints system specifically designed for children. The research found only half of children reported harmful content with 40 per cent saying they didn’t do so because they thought they would be ignored. Of those that did report it, 25 per cent said the firms failed to take any action.

“I’d like to see a genuine place where children can complain with a face to the front of it and a proper response,” said Ms de Souza, who urged the Government to reintroduce its Online Safety Bill as soon as possible.