Self-harm images ‘normalise’ dangerous internet content as web firms face tougher regulations

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Online Images of self-harm are “normalising” dangerous internet content and leaving people’s health at risk, the Suicide Prevention Minister has said.

Jackie Doyle-Price said that such content now poses an online threat as great as child grooming and warned that internet firms could face tougher regulations.

He speech yesterday came after the death of Molly Russell, 14, whose family found she had viewed content on social media linked to anxiety, depression, self-harm and suicide before taking her own life in November 2017.

“Many of you in this room will have been moved by the story of Molly Russell which was recently in the news. I’m very grateful to her father Ian for his courage in sharing her story and I’ve viewed the material that Molly accessed using her Instagram account,” she said in a speech to the National Suicide Prevention Alliance (NSPA) conference.

“I have no doubt that the suicide and self-harm content of the kind that Molly viewed had the effect of normalising self-harm.

“In normalising it, it has an effect akin to grooming. We have embraced the liberal nature of social media platforms, but we need to protect ourselves and our children from the harm which can be caused by both content and behaviour.”

Ms Doyle-Price, who confirmed she was due to meet Facebook later on Tuesday to discuss the issue, said the government was prepared to introduce regulations if social media did not act.

“We must look at the impact of harmful suicide and self-harm content online. I am hugely encouraged that the government’s forthcoming White Paper to address online harms will consider what more can be done to address this harmful content online.

“If companies cannot behave responsibly and protect their users, we will legislate. Providers ought to want to do this. They shouldn’t wait for government to tell them what to do. It says a lot about the values of companies if they do not take action voluntarily.”

NSPA co-chair Brian Dow said some social media companies have “dragged their heels” on the issue.

Ms Doyle-Price called on internet companies to “step up to their responsibilities” when it came to protecting users.

The family of Molly Russell raised concerns over content the 14-year-old had viewed online before she died.

Her father Ian Russell said he had “no doubt Instagram helped kill my daughter”.

Instagram boss Adam Mosseri said he was “deeply moved” by Molly’s story and that the social media platform is “not yet where we need to be” on the issues of suicide and self-harm. He said the Facebook-owned platform had launched a review into its policies and was adding “sensitivity screens” to images of self-harm as part of plans to make posts on the subject harder to find.

Health secretary Matt Hancock is also due to meet Instagram officials on Thursday to understand how it is tackling harmful online content.