DEVASTATED families searching for answers about their children’s deaths have accused Facebook of cruelly denying them access to the kids’ accounts.
The heartbroken dad of 14-year-old Molly Russell, who took her own life after watching self-harm videos, said he had been prevented from searching for key online information by the social media giant.
The Sun on Sunday can reveal dozens of other grieving parents have been left distraught due to Facebook’s refusal to allow them into their children’s final messages.
These heartbreaking stories follow an increase in the number of people taking out digital wills to entrust online data — such as messages, music and photos — to family members.
Ian Russell has been searching for answers after Molly died in her bedroom in 2017.
She had been looking at images of self-harm and suicide on sites including Instagram, which is owned by Facebook.
The family are convinced they contributed to her death.
Earlier this year they were given hope when the coroner in Molly’s inquest took the unusual step of ordering the police to examine the devices. Officers are still working to see what can be retrieved.
Ian said: “There is no question that what she found online deepened her depression and hastened her demise.
“She died without a will, she was 14 and everything else quite naturally returns to us as her parents. So should her data.
"It would be lovely to have access to the clips and photos and to be able to hear her voice again, see messages and understand a bit more about her life.
“On another level there may be stuff on those electronic devices that throw a new light on all of this.”
Ian, a TV director and producer from Harrow, North West London, said despite getting all of Molly’s possessions, her digital data has been kept out of reach.
We'd love to hear her voice. And it might shed light on all this.Ian Russell
He has called on the next government to give parents legal rights to their children’s devices and online accounts.
Ian said: “As a family we have had to find ways to move on and get closure and it has probably delayed that. I don’t think any family should have to go through that.”
The social media giant, which launched in 2004, has around 2.27billion members, with almost 1.4billion expected to die before 2100.
Why you need a digital will
But only 25 per cent of Facebook users say they have decided what they want to happen to their page when they die.
You can plan for what happens to your account by setting a legacy in the settings section of Facebook. The company can then manage aspects of your page, such as friend requests and profile pictures.
Once someone’s death is reported to Facebook, the page automatically becomes “memorialised”, meaning the account is secured then prevented from coming up in notifications or friend suggestions.
Immediate family members can also request a loved one’s account is removed.
In the UK, Facebook will never knowingly let anyone log in to a dead person’s account. The same applies to Instagram.
There has been a surge in the number of people making digital wills, after a rise in legal cases concerning legacies of dead users.
Stockport-based solicitors Gorvins said it had seen an increase in digital legacies cases. Assets have included family photographs and downloads of films, music and TV. Even posts made to Facebook and Instagram have been subject to disputes by family members.
Michael Smoult, of Gorvins, said: “Many people don’t think about making a will until factors in their life change.
“The last thing on someone’s mind at a time of accident, injury or serious illness is who is going to be keeper of the Facebook account.
“But those accounts often contain treasured pictures, which can be a source of immense comfort.
“It’s one area of bequests that many people still overlook and it’s a potentially combustible state of affairs.”
By 2070 the number of dead users’ profiles could pass the living, according to an Oxford University study.
Experts have warned we are on course for a digital legacy catastrophe unless social media firms make people more aware of what happens to their online life once they die.
Mum Lisa Bowie, 54, pleaded with Facebook to reactivate her teenage son Mitchell’s account shortly after he died in 2016.
She believed his suicide was linked to him meeting a “catfish” — a woman pretending to be someone else — on Facebook.
The total lack of compassion from Facebook has been awful.Lisa Bowie
But the company said it was unable to allow her access because he had not given her permission before his death.
She told The Sun on Sunday: “I know there is something more behind Mitchell’s suicide and the information is on Facebook. But Facebook hasn’t helped me, it has done the opposite.
"I’m absolutely disgusted. Parents should be able to access their children’s account after their death.
“We need to get some sort of understanding of why our child has done it, what messages they’ve sent, to see what sites they have been on and if they have been taunted by anyone or bullied into it.
“The lack of compassion from Facebook has been awful.”
Lisa, from Redcar, North Yorks, said Mitchell began talking to the catfish, who called herself Emily, in 2014, when he was 16.
She said that after a year of talking to Emily, Mitchell became withdrawn and did not leave the house. Lisa said Emily would call him constantly and if he did not answer she would get angry.
The day before he died on July 31, 2016, phone records showed she called him for one minute and 15 seconds but Lisa has no idea what she said.
Police tracked down the woman and said they were satisfied she and Mitchell were in a relationship.
But Lisa is certain his Facebook may hold more clues. The mum of five said: “Mitchell kept deactivating his Facebook account and going back on, probably because of this up-and-down relationship with this fake account.
“He had deactivated it before he died but we knew Facebook could reactivate it as he’d done it many times before. We wanted to get into Facebook to see what messages there were.
“His friends tried to access his account but we needed to know the security question and I couldn’t think of what it would be. Facebook told me it was unable to help because his account had been deactivated.
“Surely there must be a way for parents to find these things out after a child’s death?”
Angie Hart, 51, was blocked from her 15-year-old daughter Katie Gammon’s Facebook.
Katie died in August 2015 after a lifelong battle with cystic fibrosis. But in her final moments, Katie gave her mum her Facebook password so she could access her accounts.
Angie spent hours scrolling through messages from friends and family, which helped with the grieving process.
Yet four weeks after Katie’s death, Angie was blocked from using her Facebook and no amount of pleading emails helped.
Angie, a housekeeper from Barnstaple, Devon, said: “I have been blocked and ignored by Facebook since 2015.
“I loved reading her messages and the kind words of encouragement she’d pass on to her other friends with the awful genetic condition.
“Facebook has no idea how devastating it is to be blocked and ignored when you’ve lost a child. It was her dying wish we continue to use her Facebook.”
If you lose someone, you want to hold on to words from their last days.Lorin LaFave
In February 2014, 18-year-old Lewis Daynes lured Breck Bednar, 14, to his flat in Grays, Essex, where he raped and murdered him.
Air cadet Breck’s family have been bombarded with Snapchat messages detailing the murder — believed to be from Daynes. He got life with a minimum of 25 years in 2015.
Breck’s mum Lorin LaFave, 51, of Caterham, Surrey, said she was refused access to her son’s Facebook page.
She said: “I would have loved to have had access to Breck’s account. When you lose someone you want to hold on to any words which will give you insight into their personality or last days.
"I haven’t been able to get access to Breck’s social media accounts because Facebook told me I didn’t have his passwords. It was heartbreaking.”
Online firms' shutdowns
By Daniel Jones, Consumer Editor
SOCIAL media sites have different rules, with Facebook the only site where users can put things in place before they die.
Users over 18 must pick a “legacy” contact who can post a final message on a profile before it is turned into a “memorial” account.
These accounts have “Remembering” added to the name. There is a new “Tributes” section where people can reminisce about the person. The legacy contact can moderate these and edit who can post or see posts.
Latest rules allow parents who have lost children under 18 to request being a legacy contact. Under-18s cannot specify one.
Users can also tell Facebook they want their account deleted when they die.
Instagram has no option to gain access. But it does memorialise accounts in a similar way. Friends and relatives must email with proof of death. Posts of a dead user stay on the site and can be seen by anyone shared with.
Twitter will deactivate an account if a close family member or someone authorised to act on behalf of their estate gets in contact. They can also request it is deleted. But Twitter will never give access to an account.
The other option is to keep a document. This could be in a pad or on a family computer or tablet, with log-ins and passwords.
Lorin, who works for the Breck Foundation, a charity set up in her son’s name to promote safety online, had a landmark victory when US courts ordered Snapchat to hand over data to British police about the sick messages sent to their family.
Last night a Facebook spokeswoman said: “We do not allow someone to log into another person’s account, even after they have died, in order to protect the security and privacy of the deceased person’s information.
“We understand there could be a valid legal reason to access the account and in those instances we work closely with the relevant authorities.”
Molly Russell's dad says social media contributed towards his daughters death on This Morning
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