Social media firms face ban over suicide images

Health secretary warns online giants must ‘purge’ disturbing material or face new legislation or higher taxes

(Image credit: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images)

Social media firms could be banned if they fail to remove harmful online content, the health secretary has suggested.

Matt Hancock has written to social media bosses at Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Snapchat, Pinterest, Google and Apple warning them to “purge” material promoting self-harm and suicide to ensure they do not breach the policies of internet providers.

It comes just days after the father of 14-year-old Molly Russell, who took her own life in 2017 after viewing disturbing content online, said photo-sharing platform Instagram had “helped” kill his daughter.

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The girl was found dead in her bedroom after showing “no obvious signs” of severe mental health issues, only for the family to later discover she had been viewing material on social media linked to anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide.

“Suicide is now the leading cause of death for young people under 20 and levels of self-harm are rising among teenage girls in particular,” Hancock said.

Speaking to the BBC, Ian Russell criticised tech companies for refusing to give him access to his daughter’s accounts so that he could see the content she was looking at in the hours before her death.

He also called for the establishment of an independent regulator to ensure that “distressing content can be removed from social media and online within 24 hours”.

The Sunday Times reports that since the interview aired, many more families have come out to accuse technology giants of abetting their children’s suicides.

Papyrus, a charity that works to prevent youth suicide, said it has been contacted by around thirty families in the past week who believe social media had a part to play in their children's suicides.

The Daily Mail reports that Pinterest, which allows users to save images in a virtual scrapbook, “hosts images of self-harm wounds, fists clasping white pills, and macabre mottos which can be viewed by children aged 13 and over”.

The paper also claims that the website, which uses algorithms to drive content, sent a personalised email to Russell containing graphic images a month after she died.

Citing the youngster's death, Hancock, the first MP to have his own dedicated app, said in his letter: “It is appalling how easy it still is to access this content online and I am in no doubt about the harm this material can cause, especially for young people. It is time for internet and social media providers to step up and purge this content once and for all.”

He said he wanted to work with internet and social media providers but also threatened to introduce new legislation “where needed” or impose extra taxes on websites that failed to crack down on disturbing content.

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