When Molly Russell committed suicide at 14, thoughts about her deteriorating despair were posted on a hidden Twitter account. Although the story is devastating we are talking about it here to raise awareness of the issues. In the UK there has been an inquiry as to the role of social media in her death. There are several things we, as parents, can take away. In particular the algorithms that social media companies use to link users to interests, if someone has negative thoughts they can be driven into an echo chamber of like minded people.
Molly’s father, Ian, said before North London Coroner’s Court that although his daughter had been spending more time alone in her room, she was still happy to participate in family activities. Getting your child to talk to you is not easy. She would not of outwardly been different than many of our teenagers going through the ups and downs of life.
After her death he learned she had created a Twitter account without his knowledge. She used it to ask for assistance from other Twitter users with her help with depression. The first image Molly sent on Twitter with her covert account was a hand-drawn illustration of a young woman gazing up at the sky and declaring, “I’m ready to become one of the stars.”
As her father has become a well-known advocate for tighter control of social media following her passing, The story of Molly Russell and her picture in school uniform was featured on newspaper front pages in the United Kingdom. Molly Russell’s family hopes that publicizing the Twitter account may help others. It now has a link to a suicide prevention charity.
What Was Going On Behind Closed Doors?
It is not possible to keep your child away from content on suicide. Even on Netflix programs such as 13 Reasons Why suicide is in the main stream. This must be used to promote conversations.
Teenagers that are struggling might look for this type of content to connect with others. If ‘no one understands’ is it possible to find those that do. We would never willingly bring in printed literature of methods of suicide and self-harm in our house. We know that we do not want to expose young people to information of this nature. Yet thousands of people already follow these accounts.
Ian thinks Molly spent most of her time online on Pinterest and Instagram, browsing through thousands of images of self-harm and death. At her inquest, representatives from both businesses will deliver evidence. It will look at how social media algorithms recommend content and keep children online, among other things. Molly used Twitter significantly less frequently, and the company is not a party to the investigation.
However, the time she spent using the Twitter platform is important because it allowed us to witness her thoughts and feelings expressed in tweets, which showed how intricate and subtle a teen’s mental health can be. It can act as a timeline for us to see what happened.
In preparation for the inquest, the Met Police performed a forensic examination of Molly’s phone. The Russell family’s legal counsel received tens of thousands of pages of documents from the officers, including information about the previously undisclosed Twitter account.
The account indicated that Molly used a succession of tweets and retweets to document her emotional status over the course of a year. She chose the handle “Idfc nomore” for her Twitter account, which Ian interprets to mean “I don’t f****** care no more”. But what she wrote in her Twitter bio—a brief overview of who she is at the top of her account—reflected typical teenage interests. “Harry Potter is life,” it declared. She sent out her first tweet in December 2016 and shared a message from an account that only posted comments about despair.
This shared account appears to belong to a teenage American child who has struggled with depression, self-harm, and anxiety. More than 200,000 people follow that account, which has been active on Twitter for years. A US suicide hotline number is “pinned” to the top of the account now so that users will notice it before scrolling down. Twitter’s algorithms would have suggested related accounts to Molly as she followed this one; the more you interact with information on a certain topic, the more of that type of content is recommended to you. This one look at this tweet would of meant that more were funnelled to her account.
According to Ian, these pictures present suicide and the anguish it causes in a way that nearly justifies it. He claims that there is a certain aesthetic, artistic, and creative way that exhorts people to join certain groups. It would give that feeling of belonging that many teenagers crave. A community of people that they think feel the way that they do.
The nonprofit Papyrus specializes in preventing teen suicide. According to estimates, four children between the ages of five and 18 commit suicide in the UK every week. As a result of Twitter’s agreement from the result of the investigation into Molly Russell’s death, the top search result is a notification encouraging people to reach out for help when they search for phrases connected with suicide or self-injury.
After the news of Molly broke, more than 30 families called the organization’s helpline to express their concern that social media had contributed to their child’s death.
Papyrus CEO, Ged Flynn, claims that having suicidal thoughts for an extended period is not unusual. He claims that sometimes for weeks or months, people may ruminate, cogitate, and repeat their thoughts. Many young people express their doubt online, try to figure it out, and wonder, “Am I the only one who feels like this?”
People do not put a large help-me sign around their necks. When online, Molly was dropping clues.
Advice for Guardians, Parents, and Caregivers
At any age it is good to be able to talk to your child about depression so that they realise that they are not alone. According to the nonprofit Papyrus, having a conversation with your child about social media and the thoughts they may be having might be challenging and intimidating, but initiating it is the most crucial step. It is recommended that you take the following easy steps to talk with your child about the matter:
- Calm down. If something has upset you, take your time to come across as calm and supportive, although inside you might be petrified. This will not be one conversation and done. It will be months. You need to win their trust first to speak to you rather than faceless individuals. You have not failed if they have not done this already, there could be a chance conversation at school that has led them down this route.
- Let them talk. We have lots of advice here about difficult conversations, when to have them and how. Listen, they do not want answers at this point. Just let them get it off their chest. That you understand (even if you don’t).
- Ask to see what they are looking at on their phone. This is a judgement call. You might want to see before hand. It will be tempting just to take their phone away, but instead talk about it’s usage and how you can support each other. At this point get some help from an external organisation or school.
The above seem simple, but Molly Russell was able to keep her sadness a secret from people who knew her for months, if not years. Ian can recall a period when she was not quite herself. He talked to her about it while they were in the car and told her to inform him if there was ever anything she needed to talk about. She concurred. Molly, though, opted for Instagram and Twitter.
On February 4, 2017, she posted her first tweet on Twitter, saying, “I don’t need to be saved, I need to be found.” This was taken from a poem written about the author’s own battle with depression by actor and model Cara Delevingne.
Ian explains that it just illustrates the degree of sorrow she must have been experiencing, which none of them knew. He thinks she believed she was coping and found a way to get through it. Then, gradually over the course of those months, it all increased, swamping, then consuming her. But she did not reveal this.
On her Twitter account, Molly also discussed typical teenage hobbies in between bouts of deepening sadness. She stayed up late waiting for US rapper Phora’s new video to be released. She viewed Riverdale, an American TV show.
However, Molly also tweeted JK Rowling at the same time, stating that she was having suicidal thoughts. She did not receive a response, but given that the author has 13.9 million followers, this is not unreasonable. Molly appeared to be looking for assistance at times, although it is possible that she was unsure where to look.
Lili Reinhart, one of the Riverdale cast members, has openly battled depression. Reinhart, who has more than three million followers, tweeted an encouragement to have strength during mental health awareness month in 2017. She said she keeps in mind how far she has come and how she did not let depression dominate her when she’s feeling down or sad. “I can’t take it any longer, I need someone but I can’t call out to anyone I love I just can’t take it,” Molly wrote in a direct message to Reinhart in addition to retweeting the posts.
She did not hear back from anyone. Reinhart has millions of fans, much like JK Rowling, and must deal with a comparable volume of messages.
Later, Molly would tweet a link to a Kevin Briggs’ TED lecture that was available online. In it, he discussed his experiences trying to talk to people who were about to leap off bridges during times of personal distress.
Final Thoughts on Molly Russell
Not for one moment would it be that any of the celebrities or the parents are to blame here. This could be any child. In public and at the dinner table seemingly normal. But when alone can find a new world that is not supportive. An echo chamber of negativity without a voice wanting to talk. How can we stop our own child following this. There is no easy answer. The first must be education. Explain that social media is an echo chamber, how it works to derive profit. To give you more of what you are asking for. The next would be to look at our children’s phones if we have a concern. A difficult decision as trust is key in a relationship. And finally, trying to be aware of the signs. We have several articles here and will continue to add to them. But the death of Molly Russell is tragic, and perhaps unavoidable. But it underlines that what might be going on behind closed doors or in the back of the car on a small black device is not always harmless.