Bereaved parents will be given access to their dead children’s social media accounts under proposed new laws.
The amendments, to be tabled to the Online Safety Bill, aim to prevent a repeat of the five-year delay in access experienced by the grieving parents of Molly Russell, the 14-year-old who took her own life in 2017 after being bombarded with graphic posts encouraging self-harm and suicide on social media platforms.
The changes have been drawn up by Baroness Kidron, the film director who successfully persuaded ministers to introduce the children’s code to protect against online harms.
She said that she had received pleas for help from dozens of grief-stricken parents denied access to their children’s social media that could help them understand the circumstances of their deaths.
Her plans have been backed by Ian Russell, Molly’s father, who said that the family had refused to give up their five-year fight for access to her social media accounts despite the toll it took on their “emotional health”.
Mr Russell told The Telegraph: “On many occasions, it would have been easy for us to give up and accept little or no digital evidence would be provided. Instead, with the support of many, we resolved to keep pushing for the data required to learn lessons, improve online safety and save lives.
“Having lived through Molly’s extended inquest, we think it is important that in future, after the death of a child, authorities’ access to data becomes much more straightforward, a matter of course. A more compassionate, efficient and speedy process is required to meet the needs of families and the authorities.”
The coroner concluded she died from an act of self-harm while suffering from depression and “the negative effects of online content” which had “more than minimally contributed” to her death.
The amendments would give Ofcom, the communications watchdog, powers to ensure that bereaved parents and coroners get access to social media firms’ data if it was suspected that it had played a part in a child’s death.
This would include algorithms or searches showing how harmful content might have been driven to the child, as happened with Molly, and also the ways in which the child engaged with it such as viewing, sharing, storing or pausing it. Third parties would have to be redacted from any data to protect their privacy.
A new offence of delaying the disclosure of evidence, documents or algorithms to any investigation by Ofcom or the coroner would be created under an amendment to the Coroners and Justice Act.
This would mean social media bosses would face up to a year in jail and fines of up to 10 per cent of their companies’ global turnover.
Coroners would also be placed under a duty to consider whether a child’s social media use needed to be investigated if it was suspected that their online life may have played a part in their death.
Baroness Kidron, who founded the charity 5Rights to campaign for children’s safety online, said: “I am not saying these services are deliberately killing children, but I am saying they have an enormous and outsized impact on children that can lead to their deaths.
“Families should not have to spend years from a point of absolute abject grief having to take it on their shoulders to campaign for transparency. This has to be a central tenet of the Online Safety Bill. We have to have transparency for bereaved families.”
It is understood that ministers have been sympathetic to speeding up the process, but are thought not to be convinced the Online Safety Bill is the best vehicle. A revamped version of the Bill is expected to be presented to Parliament within the next month.