Instagram's self-harm curbs: Getting a glimpse into the horror

2019-02-09 07:09
(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

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Britain on Friday urged all social media platforms to join Instagram and curb self-harm posts after a UK teen who went online to read about suicide took her own life.

The Facebook-owned picture sharing platform's ban on "graphic" content was announced following a meeting on Thursday between its global chief Adam Mosseri and UK Health Secretary Matt Hancock.

British teen Molly Russell took her own life in 2017. The 14-year-old's social media history revealed that she followed accounts about depression and suicide.

The case sparked a vigorous debate in Britain about parental control and state regulation of children's social media use.

British Prime Minister Theresa May welcomed the move "and encourages other platforms to take the same approach", her spokesperson said on Friday.

Molly's parents did not directly blame Instagram for the loss of their daughter.

But her father Ian cited the easy access to such posts on Instagram and Pinterest - a newer site also built around images - as a contributing factor that platforms must not ignore.

"The more I looked (into her online accounts), the more there was that chill horror that I was getting a glimpse into something that had such profound effects on my lovely daughter," Ian Russell told The Times last month.

He called Instagram's decision on Thursday "encouraging".

"I hope that the company acts swiftly to implement these plans and make good on their commitments," Ian Russell said.

Cry for help

Instagram's Mosseri said the changes followed a comprehensive review involving experts and academics on children's mental health issues.

"I joined the company more than 10 years ago and we were primarily focused on all of the good that came out of connecting people," Mosseri told The Telegraph newspaper.

"But if I am honest we were under-focused on the risks of connecting so many people. That's a lesson we have learned over the last few years."

Instagram has never allowed posts that promote or encourage suicide or self-harm.

But it will now ban "graphic self-harm" images and remove references to less explicit posts about people hurting themselves from its searches and recommendations.

It will also clamp down on hashtags - words featuring a "#" that mark a trending topic - relating to suicide.

The measures are meant to make such posts more difficult to find for depressed teens who might have suicidal tendencies.

"We are not removing this type of content from Instagram entirely," said Mosseri.

"We don't want to stigmatise or isolate people who may be in distress and posting self-harm related content as a cry for help."

'Careful regulation'

Social media platforms are coming under increasing scrutiny as they expand in reach and cultural influence.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg said last year that he thought more regulation of the industry was "inevitable" because of the internet's size.

"My position is not that there should be no regulation," Zuckerberg told an April 2018 US congressional hearing.

"But I also think that you have to be careful about regulation you put in place."

Instagram's Mosseri told The Telegraph that he supported statutes being considered by the British government "as a concept".

"There is a lot of regulation already," said Mosseri.

"We think it's important to collaborate with policymakers so that ... whatever legislation or processes they put in place work, make sense."

The UK government will this month publish a "white paper" on harmful online behaviour that will be used as guideline for possible oversight rules.

"The task is to design a system of oversight that preserves what is best and most innovative about the online companies but which also insists that they do what they can to keep the users of their services safe," Culture Minister Jeremy Wright wrote in The Times.

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