Molly Russell used her phone to search for depression-related images on Instagram just before she took her own life, an investigation reported on Wednesday.
The 14-year-old from Harrow, north London, died in 2017 after spending months battling depression and anxiety while viewing self-harm and suicide material on social media, primarily Instagram and Pinterest.
Ian Russell, Molly’s father, earlier accused Meta-owned Instagram, formerly known as Facebook, of “helping to kill” his daughter just six days shy of her 15th birthday.
After five years of delays, an inquest into her death at North London Coroner’s Court began hearing evidence on Wednesday as it seeks to establish whether Molly was “overwhelmed” by the content she saw.
Russell, 59, told the inquest that he had started going through his daughter’s social media accounts in a desperate attempt to understand what had driven her to suicide.
She would go on to uncover a “horrific” cache of images she had saved, including self-inflicted injuries and quotes that reinforce feelings of worthlessness or justify suicide.
She later discovered that Molly was never asked to provide her date of birth when she signed up for Instagram at the age of 12.
Police analysis of his devices found that the last time he used his iPhone to access Instagram was at 00:45 on November 21.
Two minutes earlier, at 00:43, he had saved an image on Instagram that read: “The worst thing depression did to me was take away my intelligence. Feeling dumber and dumber is absolutely painful.”
Oliver Sanders KC, representing the Russell family, said: “Within an hour, or maybe two hours, she was dead.”
Her mother found her dead in her room around 7 am, the investigation reported.
His parents did not know the extent of his personal torment. They had only noted that she had not been “herself” for most of that year, and her father told police that she had become “quiet and withdrawn.”
Russell told the hearing that his journey into the depths of Molly’s online world had affected his own mental health so much that he had to stop looking at the posts.
“It’s just the bleakest of worlds, you’re surrounded by images that are about this bleak, shocking, horrible world,” he said.
“It’s a ghetto online world that once you fall into it, the algorithm means you can’t escape.”
The more Molly interacted with social media posts that “normalized, glamorized and even glorified dangerous behavior,” the more those posts were automatically fed to her through the platforms’ algorithm, Russell said at the hearing.
He warned that despite the significant publicity surrounding Molly’s death, children were still in danger of being exposed to the same graphic material on social media.
Russell told the court: “Unfortunately, in August of this year, I saw similarly horrible content on platforms and particularly on Instagram, so the steps that were taken are not effective enough and people are still in danger.”
In addition to Instagram, Molly was an avid user of the image-sharing website Pinterest, which sent her “animated” emails filled with more content about depression and suicide, according to Sanders.
They continued to arrive in his inbox after his death.
One such email, received more than a fortnight after Molly’s death on December 7, 2017, was headed by large letters that read, “New ideas for you in depression.”
Underneath, he continued: “We found some (images) that we think you might like.”
More than a dozen images with somber quotes and images then followed, including one that read, “I’m not afraid of the dark, I’m more afraid of never finding the light again.”
Suicide notes found in Molly’s bedroom echoed the kind of language used in social media posts, the inquest said.
Sanders said, “They were romanticizing the idea of self-harm, romanticizing the idea of suicide — this is something that’s for deep people, who are different.”
An analysis of Molly’s phone by police also found that she was an “avid fan” of an American YouTube star named Salice Rose who has spoken out about suicide and depression.
“It may also be relevant that Miss Russell died on or just after Salice Rose’s birthday,” said a report by Michael Walker, the specialist investigator who carried out the analysis.
The family was said to “strongly believe that Molly’s act that night must have been impulsive” as she had behaved normally that night and it would have been “against her nature” to have planned her suicide when her sister’s 21st birthday it was the next day.
Early in the investigation, Mr. Russell provided a “pen portrait” of Molly that included the tributes her friends had paid at her funeral.
He said: “It is too easy to dwell on the events that led to Molly ending her life. It is too easy to forget the person she truly was: someone full of love, hope, and happiness, a young woman full of promise, opportunity, and potential.”
“Molly was a positive, happy, bright young woman who was truly destined for good. Her life mattered and her place in the world will remain as important as ever.
“Although her story is not the one any of us would have chosen to tell, and it is different from the one she would tell herself if she were still here, it will be just as powerful and influential.
“For those who knew Molly. Never forget what a lovely young woman Molly was. Never forget her caring nature. Never forget what a great friend Molly was to so many.
“For all those affected by your story, please remember that there is always help and hope. Remember to live long and stay strong like Molly wanted.”
Meta has been granted “person of interest” status in the investigation, meaning she will officially legally take part in the proceedings in what is believed to be a first for the technology company in the UK.
Pinterest confirmed that it was the first time it had acted as a person of interest in a UK investigation.
The investigation continues.