People who use social media posts to encourage self-harm face criminal prosecution under government changes to the revived online safety bill.
Culture secretary Michelle Donelan will update the bill to criminalise encouraging self-harm when the legislation returns to parliament next month.
The move follows the inquest this year into the death of 14-year-old Molly Russell, who took her own life in 2017 after viewing online material related to self-harm, suicide and depression. In a groundbreaking verdict, the coroner ruled that the “negative effects of online content” contributed to Molly’s death.
“I am determined that the abhorrent trolls encouraging the young and vulnerable to self-harm are brought to justice,” said Donelan. “So I am strengthening our online safety laws to make sure these vile acts are stamped out and the perpetrators face jail.”
The proposed amendment to the bill, which returns to the House of Commons on 5 December, also requires social media companies to prevent such content appearing online or else face the threat of substantial fines. The bill imposes a duty of care on tech platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to prevent illegal content – which will now include material encouraging self-harm – being exposed to users. The communications regulator Ofcom will have the power to levy fines of up to 10% of a company’s revenues.
Donelan said: “Social media firms can no longer remain silent bystanders. They’ll face fines for allowing this abusive and destructive behaviour to continue on their platforms under our laws.”
The progress of the online safety bill has been paused twice since it was introduced to parliament in 2021, amid Conservative backbench concerns about its impact on free speech. In July Kemi Badenoch, then a Tory leadership contender, said the bill was in “no fit state” to become law and, in an apparent reference to the bill’s provisions on content which is “legal but harmful”, that “we should not be legislating for hurt feelings”. The then culture secretary, Nadine Dorries, hit back, asking if encouraging others to take their own life should be defined as “hurt feelings”.
Donelan indicated that criticisms from some parliamentary colleagues will be addressed by removing provisions on legal but harmful material for adults. She said in September that the part of the bill addressing content that causes harm but falls below the threshold of criminality is “the bit we will be changing” when the legislation comes back.
A spokesperson for the Molly Rose Foundation, a charity set up by Molly Russell’s family, said the proposal to criminalise encouraging self-harm “appears a significant move”, but more “harmful but legal” content should be tackled in the bill.
“From the evidence submitted to Molly Russell’s inquest in September, the ‘harmful but legal’ content probably did the most damage to Molly’s mental health,” said the spokesperson. Referring to one of the posts seen by Molly and cited in the inquest, they added: “Would this new offence prevent posts such as: ‘Who would love a suicidal girl?’ or would these continue to be spread by the social media tech platforms? It’s therefore important that other ‘harmful but legal’ content, of the type we know was harmful to Molly, is also within scope of the bill.”
The inquest has given renewed impetus to reintroducing the bill after a coroner’s court heard evidence that the teenager had consumed vast amounts of harmful online material before she died. Of 16,300 pieces of content that Molly interacted with on Instagram in the six months before she died, 2,100 were related to suicide, self-harm and depression. It also emerged that Pinterest, the image-sharing platform, had sent her content recommendation emails with titles such as “10 depression pins you might like”.
Encouragement of suicide is already illegal, and the bill will strengthen provisions to protect children from harmful content when it returns.
One change to the bill has already been confirmed with the announcement last week of new offences covering the taking or sharing of intimate images of a person. It will criminalise the sharing of pornographic “deepfakes” – images or videos manipulated to resemble a person – and the taking of “downblousing” images where photos are taken down a person’s top. Installing equipment in order to take an illicit image of an individual will also be criminalised.