Health Secretary Matt Hancock tells social media firms to 'purge' harmful content after teen's suicide

Posted On: 
27th January 2019

Matt Hancock has called on social media firms to “purge” harmful posts from their sites after the death of a teenager was linked with the content.

Matt Hancock has called on social media firms to take urgent action
Credit: 
PA

The Health Secretary warned social media firms, including Instagram and Pintrest, that he would not hesitate to legislate if they did not do more to protect users from being targeted with content encouraging self-harm.

The warning comes after thirty families accused the tech companies of hosting content which they believe played a part in the death of their children.

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Speaking to the Sunday Times, Ian Russell, whose 14-year-old daughter Molly committed suicide in November 2017, blamed algorithms used on the social media sites for repeatedly showing teens the harmful content.

“The more I looked [into Molly’s online accounts], the more there was that chill horror that I was getting a glimpse into something that had such profound effects on my lovely daughter," he told the paper.

“We went to one Molly was following and what we found was just horrendous.

“They seemed to be completely encouraging self-harm, linking depression to self-harm and to suicide, making it seem inevitable, normal, graphically showing things like cutting, biting, burning, bruising, taking pills.

“It was there, hiding in plain site.”

In a letter to social media firms reminding them of their responsibilities, Mr Hancock called on them to take urgent action.

“I welcome that you have already taken important steps, and developed some capabilities to remove harmful content. But I know you will agree that more action is urgently needed,” he wrote.

“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.

“I want to work with internet and social media providers to ensure the action is as effective as possible.

“However, let me be clear that we will introduce legislation where needed.”

The intervention from the Health Secretary comes ahead of a government white paper on the potential harms caused by online content, including the risk of self-harm and suicide.

Mr Hancock added: “I feel the fear of a parent that our children can be torn away from us, aided by new technology. So I am determined to do what is necessary to stop teenagers falling into a suicide trap.

“We must act now, so technology is seen to improve lives, and stop it causing harm. This is a critical moment - as a supporter of digital technology, I don’t want the benefits of technology to be lost because of reasonable concerns about its risks. But most importantly, I don’t want another family to have to go through the agony of losing a child this way.”

An Instagram spokesperson told the Sunday Times: “We work with expert groups who… tell us that the sharing of a person’s mental health journey can be an important part of recovery. This is why we don’t remove certain content and instead offer people looking at, or posting is, support messaging that directs people to groups that can help.”