Bereaved families have accused social media firms of treating them “inhumanely” and as if their requests to access their children’s data were like contacting “lost property”.
In a letter to Rishi Sunak, the Prime Minister; Michelle Donelan, the Culture Secretary; and Dominic Raab, the Justice Secretary, the five sets of bereaved parents described how they had been left in automated loops, speaking to online bots and blocked from access to data as the firms failed to come clean about their role in their children’s deaths.
They urged ministers to back amendments, tabled this week, to the Online Safety Bill that would force social media bosses to open up children’s accounts to their bereaved parents so they can understand why they died.
It comes as Mr Sunak was challenged on Wednesday by Damian Collins, the former digital minister, to support the plans.
The Prime Minister said: “The Government is listening carefully to the concerns of parliamentary colleagues and to bereaved families.” He said the Government would “ensure we have the right set of procedures in place”.
The parents have invited him, his Cabinet colleagues and Judge Thomas Teague KC, the chief coroner, to meet them in Parliament on March 8 to hear their experiences and discuss the amendments.
The five include Ian Russell, the father of Molly Russell, 14, who died in Nov 2017 after months of browsing dark images and videos on social media as she battled depression and anxiety.
He fought for five years to gain access to her data. When it was finally released by the social media firms for her inquest, it revealed she had received 16,000 “destructive” posts encouraging self-harm, anxiety and even suicide in her final six months.
The coroner concluded that Molly 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.
Others to have formed Bereaved Families for Online Safety include Ruth Moss, mother of Sophie Parkinson; Lorin Lafave, mother of Breck Bednar; Judy and Andy Thomas, parents of Frankie Thomas; and Amanda and Stuart Stephens, parents of Olly Stephens.
In their letter, the five said: “We have each lost a child in circumstances relating to the digital world, and we have each struggled to gain information we needed to understand more about their deaths. Sadly, each year, there are hundreds of families who find themselves in similarly distressing circumstances.
“The process of attempting to access data has been inhumane. In some cases, it has taken years, and we have been left in automated loops, speaking to online bots, as though we were contacting lost property.
“At the end of the process, some of us have only received partial declarations, while others of us have been refused access to information entirely. None of us have been provided with all the data requested. Opportunities to learn vital lessons and better protect other young people have been missed.”
They urged the Government to adopt amendments laid in the House of Lords by Baroness Kidron, a children’s online rights campaigner. They would create a new duty for the new online watchdog to work with the coroner to require social media companies to hand over relevant content on “a timeframe that is fair to all parties”.
This would include content the child “viewed or otherwise engaged with”, algorithms that might have driven harmful material to them and the way in which they engaged with it, such as viewing, sharing, storing, enlarging or pausing.
Any technology bosses who fail to provide or preserve the content would face fines of up to 10 per cent of their firm’s global turnover or a maximum of one year in jail.
Baroness Kidron said: “The status quo is inadequate when only one coroner has ever succeeded in getting even partial data, while other families are consigned to perpetual pain, as inquests into the death of their children open and close without ever revealing the circumstances of their death.
“This is a system with few powers, little specialist knowledge and a growing record of failure.”