A novelist who blames Instagram for the suicide of her daughter has demanded a crackdown on social media sites.
Nicola Harlow says 11-year-old Ursula killed herself after viewing ‘horrific and distressing’ images on the social network.
The accusations will heap fresh pressure on the internet giant, which is owned by Facebook. MPs and campaigners have accused it of dismal failures in policing the troves of ‘suicide porn’ on the site.
Ursula leapt to her death from a bridge in January last year shortly after finishing school for the day. She sent a last text message to her mother, reading: ‘I love you, so so sorry.’
Ursula Keogh, 11, was reported missing by her mother on January 22 after she sent a troubling text which read ‘I love you but so sorry’
Novelist Nicola Harlow (l) told Bradford Coroner’s Court it had been ‘strange’ to see her daughter Ursula (r) turn back and say ‘I love you’ as she walked to school on the morning of her death. Now she is calling for a crackdown on images of suicide and self-harm on social media
Miss Harlow, 53, is the second parent to blame their child’s suicide on Instagram this year. Ian Russell has accused the site of helping to kill his 14-year-old daughter Molly.
Speaking publicly about her daughter’s death for the first time, Miss Harlow said a dramatic regulatory overhaul was needed to protect children online
The Open University lecturer and novelist said Instagram’s popularity was having a damaging effect on the mental health of vulnerable youngsters.
‘I believe that Instagram content was a factor in my daughter’s death. She certainly had been looking at these inappropriate images,’ said Miss Harlow.
‘They were horrific and disturbing. If I could turn back time I would have destroyed her phone. Instagram creates a fantasy life and children are too young to realise that it’s not real life.
‘They need protecting. They don’t realise the influence it has on them.’
Nicky Harlow (left) said she would smash her daughter’s phone if only she could go back in time. Right: Ursula Keogh on a trip to Berlin in 2015, aged 9
Her daughter – described as a model pupil – was able to sign up to the photo-sharing site and access thousands of disturbing images despite being significantly below its age limit of 13.
Ursula began accessing ‘suicide sites’ on Instagram shortly after she started at the Lightcliffe Academy secondary school close to the family’s home in Halifax in September 2017.
Miss Harlow noticed self-harming scars on her daughter’s left arm shortly after it emerged she was being exposed to disturbing pictures. The discovery prompted Miss Harlow to confiscate her daughter’s phone, provoking a furious reaction she likened to that of an addict.
This map shows Ursula’s last known movements: She left school and is believed to caught the bus. She was seen on the bridge before her body was found at Paris Gates
She said she deeply regretted her decision to return the phone after being advised by doctors that her daughter’s response ‘happened a lot’.
Calling for immediate regulation of social media companies yesterday, the mother of two said: ‘Children should not have the means to access the content my daughter did. It is difficult for modern parents to police it. My daughter showed me the nice messages between her and her friends but not the concerning images she’d viewed.’
She called for legislation to ensure that underage children cannot easily bypass social media age restrictions, adding: ‘Instagram and Facebook both need to police their sites.’
Miss Harlow twice contacted GPs about her daughter’s self-harm but a coroner, who ruled Ursula killed herself, said she had been wrongly ‘fobbed off’.
Ursula’s body was found in the River Calder at Paris Gates in Halifax hours after her disappearnce
When she went back to doctors weeks before Ursula’s death, she was told that no appointments with a psychiatric nurse were available. Miss Harlow also suggested curbs on smartphone use by under-16s, saying: ‘There are laws in place to protect youngsters from smoking and drinking but yet these devices allow children to access a mass of information which is not age-appropriate.’
An inquest into her death last year found that Ursula had been struggling emotionally since the divorce of Miss Harlow and David Keogh, Ursula’s father. Miss Harlow said her daughter, who enjoyed playing the violin, ballet, cycling and music, had become moody and hormonal at the time, which coincided with puberty.
Instagram has announced plans to crack down on images that glamourise self-harm and suicide earlier this week.
This was met with criticism from campaigners, who said the action was inadequate.
The technology giant admitted it set its engineers to work on the issue only last weekend despite long-standing concerns.
Thousands of gory posts on the website show images of people cutting themselves, while its algorithms have been blamed for bombarding children with distressing content.
Criticism of Instagram following revelations about Molly’s death prompted Health Secretary Matt Hancock to threaten social media companies with bans if they did not act. Earlier this week, MPs on the Commons science and technology committee said web giants should have a legal duty of care toward children.
Instagram last night said it had not been contacted by West Yorkshire Police or the coroner in relation to Ursula’s death. It said it was ready to assist with any inquiries. The company would not comment specifically on Ursula’s death but said: ‘We have a deep responsibility to make sure the people on Instagram are safe. We do not allow content that promotes or encourages suicide or self-injury, and will we remove it as soon as we are aware.’
The internet giant said under-13s were not allowed to join and it removed users found to be under age. Yet youngsters can easily bypass the flimsy sign-up rules.
Instagram said it had launched a ‘full review of our policies, enforcement and technologies around suicide.
WHO IS NOVELIST NICKY HARLOW AND WHAT HAS SHE WRITTEN?
Nicky Harlow is an acclaimed but largely unknown author, based in Halifax, West Yorkshire
Nicky Harlow is an acclaimed but largely unknown author, based in Halifax, West Yorkshire.
Ms Harlow is a well-regarded Creative Writing lecturer and author among literary circles in the wider Manchester area and has a number of published titles including comedy Amelia and the Virgin.
She describes herself as a full-time author on her website who writes books for adults and children and also lectures for the Open University.
She is described on The Manchester Writing School’s page as a founding member of Pandril Press, a group of seven Manchester Writing School graduates who collected to form their own publishing house, and has edited and been featured in two of their anthologies: Panopticon and Weird Love.
The same website says Ms Harlow lives in Hebden Bridge with her ‘uncivil partner’.
The writer completed a degree in Fine Art at the Leeds Metropolitan University (while it was a Polytechnic college), according to her website, before working as a painter and prop-maker.
The mother-of-two then launched a successful writing career in the late-nineties, publishing two novels, Meru – Castle of Dreams in 1996 and Russian Dolls – Insignia Press in 2000.
Ms Harlow has also penned three collections of short stories with Skrev Press. Her short stories have also been published by MsLexia magazine, Route, Leaf Books, Cinnamon and other small press concerns.