LIZ JONES: Jailing social media bosses is the only way to stop the deaths of girls like Molly Russell, 14, who took her own life after viewing self harm images on Instagram
Whenever a pretty young face, full of optimism, stares out from the front pages, you know she has either been murdered or committed suicide; at that age, it’s tantamount to the same thing.
A girl with her whole life ahead of her, who will never know what it feels like to graduate, be proposed to, have children of her own.
Last week, Molly Russell’s parents revealed that, in the weeks before her death in 2017 aged 14, their daughter had been viewing images of self-harm on Instagram: slashed wrists, blood, and bridges with signs saying ‘Jump.’
Molly Russell, 14, took her own life in November 2017. It turns out when Molly was teetering on a cliff face of despair, the bosses at Instagram effectively stood beside her, dripping poison in her ear before giving her one almighty shove
‘I have no doubt Instagram helped kill my daughter,’ said her grieving father Ian.
It turns out when Molly was teetering on a cliff face of despair, the bosses at Instagram effectively stood beside her, dripping poison in her ear before giving her one almighty shove.
On Wednesday, Steve Hatch, Northern Europe Vice President of Facebook (which owns Instagram), appeared on the TV news to face a grilling, as shocking photos from his own company were slapped on his desk.
His face was ashen but not crumpled, as Molly’s parents’ faces surely were. He pointed out that, as well as these appalling suicide images, Molly also viewed more positive accounts by those attempting to help each other.
Last week, Molly Russell’s parents (her father Ian Russel is pictured above) revealed that, in the weeks before her death in 2017 aged 14, their daughter had been viewing images of self-harm on Instagram
But in doing so he only made the tragedy worse: perhaps she was hoping to be saved, only stumbling on the horrific material by mistake.
How is that possible? Algorithms: an inhuman solution to oh-so-human problems. Ged Flynn, of suicide prevention charity Papyrus, argued that allowing algorithms to collect images around hashtags such as ‘suicide’ makes Instagram potentially ‘complicit’. I’d go even further. The lack of safeguarding is tantamount to manslaughter in the name of profit.
Sadly, the content on Instagram hasn’t yet received the forensic media attention it warrants, but a survey by the Royal Society for Public Health of 1,479 people aged between 14 and 24 found Instagram to be the ‘worst social media for mental health’. Why? It’s simple. It’s the power of the image.
I can state without a shadow of a doubt that if Instagram had existed when I was a teenager, I too would be dead. My suicide attempt didn’t take place one night, alone in my room.
I can only imagine the cash-strapped NHS is even more harried now, despite the attempts of Prince William – who last week at Davos revealed celebrities shunned his Heads Together charity, unwilling to be associated with mental illness – to make a difference
Instead, my attempt was a long, slow slide towards death, from the age of 11 and into my 20s. The method? Starvation. The cause? I had stared, transfixed for hours, at images: razor-thighed models on catwalks or prone on a prairie, shot by the likes of Bruce Weber.
When I saw pictures of model Debbie Dickinson eating watermelon, I immediately told Mum that was the only fruit I’d eat. I did what the images told me to do.
The reason pictures are so powerful is that they trigger a response in the amygdala, an almond-shaped non-rational part of the brain responsible for processing emotions.
I once had a brain scan and when I was shown pictures of food, that part of the brain lit up bright red. A response to something I perceived as a threat, over which I had no rational control.
No amount of talking helps our children discount negative images. It’s not that they won’t listen, it’s that they can’t.
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Lagging way behind in terms of influence are words. In my case, the ones I gobbled up were written by entitled girls at glossy magazines who inhabited a bubble of self-confidence and privilege. They had no thought for the readers who take their words (‘calories’, ‘reducing’, ‘fasting’) to heart.
Of course, when you challenge the editors of these tomes, much as when Steve Hatch was challenged last week, they reply with a ‘not my fault’ attitude that’s staggering.
At a conference about body image held, with no irony at all, at the National Portrait Gallery some years ago, I motioned to ban airbrushing. The then editor of Elle retorted: ‘But our readers are aware the images are airbrushed. They know it’s a fantasy.’
OK, perhaps on good days we do realise that the model might not look great in daylight, or that life is worth living and these feelings will pass. But the effect of these images is subliminal, not rational: they seep into the amygdala like damp.
Sadly, the content on Instagram hasn’t yet received the forensic media attention it warrants, but a survey by the Royal Society for Public Health of 1,479 people aged between 14 and 24 found Instagram to be the ‘worst social media for mental health’ [File photo]
At the Government’s now notorious Body Summit in 2000 to tackle the impact of images on young minds, teenage girls stood up to give moving testimony about how their self-esteem plummeted after flicking through magazines.
They asked us to ‘Please stop.’ One editor responded with an: ‘I’m thin, so what?’
That industry – fashion, beauty, magazines – closed its ears, feeling untouchable. Yet it was in no way as rich and all-powerful as our social media giants today.
It’s tempting, if you’re a shareholder at one of these corporations, to place the blame at the door of parents, teachers, health experts. Children should have screen time restricted. Doctors should intervene. Mums and dads should spot the signs.
Trust me, there are no signs. Girls are masters of deception, whether they’re hiding anorexia or suicidal thoughts.
My parents had no inkling there was anything wrong. I’d wear baggy clothes. I’d disappear at meal times, avoiding Sunday lunch by claiming vegetarianism.
There was no nakedness in my house and not much hugging, so no one crunched bones. On a rare holiday, aged 13 or 14, I remained fully dressed, even on sand.
AND the experts? Come on. They’re no match for a teenage girl. The teachers at my all-girls high school never once asked why I wouldn’t take a communal shower, or go swimming, or eat lunch.
Even my consultant endocrinologist, to whom I was finally referred when I started to go blind (literally, from hunger) and had an urge to jump in front of a Tube, failed to notice I’d sewn bottles of water into my men’s coat so I’d weigh more.
Trust me, there are no signs. Girls are masters of deception, whether they’re hiding anorexia or suicidal thoughts. My parents had no inkling there was anything wrong [File photo]
I can only imagine the cash-strapped NHS is even more harried now, despite the attempts of Prince William – who last week at Davos revealed celebrities shunned his Heads Together charity, unwilling to be associated with mental illness – to make a difference.
Why would images on Instagram kill me now, if images didn’t succeed then? The crux, apart from today’s pictures being more available and constant, is that back then I had some vague understanding the models were removed, not real.
There is no such delineation these days. The super-skinny girls who post online are just like us, in bedrooms instead of yachts. If she can do it, so can I.
What can be done? We need more legislation, along the lines of the introduction of pop-up warning signs, and the ability to anonymously flag dangerous images.
We should increase the presence of help pages on what to do if you see a worrying image. Oh yes, and custodial sentences for company bosses when a child dies.
In the meantime, I’m afraid if you’re a parent, you have to snoop. I used to dread hearing my mum shuffling outside the locked bathroom door, but I wish she’d broken it down.
Don’t avoid conflict. Don’t trust us. Hammer on that door, then beat it down. Before it’s too late.
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