webnexttech | Mother left not knowing why son, 14, died battles social media companies for answers
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A bereaved mother searching for answers over her 14-year-old son’s death is demanding social media companies be forced to allow parents to access their children’s online data. Ellen Roome found the body of her son Jools Sweeney in his room on 13 April 2022, having spoken with him on the phone earlier in the evening when he told her he had been playing football with his friends and said his last words to her: “Love you.” The 48-year-old, from Cheltenham, said she and Jools’s father Matt Sweeney left the inquest into their son’s death with no explanation of what happened, with the coroner not ruling Jools died by suicide because she said they could not prove he was in a “suicidal mood”. As she was not aware Jools had been enduring any mental health struggles or facing other issues like bullying in the offline world, Ms Roome believeshe could have taken part in a “sinister” online challenge that went devastatingly wrong. She says the only way she can access his social media data to find out if this was the case is by raising tens of thousands of pounds to apply for a court order. Speaking to The Independent, Ms Roome said: “I want to know why my normal 14-year-old child decided to kill himself … It should be my human right to know why my child isn’t here.” Describing her treatment as a bereaved parent at the hands of tech companies as “inhumane”, she said: “Why the hell won’t they give me my child’s data? … These social media companies have a duty to protect our children and what they are seeing and also to release data.” Ms Roome said she has the login details to access some of Jools’ social media accounts but not his search history, which she hopes might shed light on the circumstances surrounding his death. The coroner’s report concluded that police confirmed there was no third-party involvement nor suicide note found, adding that Jools’s family could not explain why he might have wanted to kill himself. However, she said she does know that Jools enjoyed taking part in online challenges, albeit lighthearted ones. Only after her son died did she find out about dangerous challenges like “the choking challenge”, sparking fears he may have attempted one. Ms Roome said the only way she could now access her son’s search history is to apply to the Attorney General’s Office to grant an application to the High Court for a new inquest into his death, with the new Online Safety Act granting coroners more powers to compel technology companies to provide information. Justice Secretary Alex Chalk, who was Ms Roome’s MP in Cheltenham until parliament was dissolved for the upcoming general election, said: “I have written to the Attorney General to ask her to apply to the Court of Appeal for a fresh inquest. That way, these new powers can be used to get Jools’s parents the answers they are clearly entitled to. “This is a truly devastating case, which has rocked our community in Cheltenham. My heart continues to go out to Jools’s parents.” Jools’s family estimate the process will cost them at least £80,000 and they have set up a GoFundMe page to raise the funds. Ms Roome said it is unclear why neither Gloucestershire Coroner nor Gloucestershire Police requested all of Jools’ social media search history from the tech companies when he died – and she fears it could now have been deleted. The Independent has reached out to the force, while the coroner declined a request for comment. She is demanding a change in the law to require tech companies to preserve children’s data if they die, on top of her joining the calls for legislation granting parents the right to access their children’s social media accounts. She set up a petition urging the latter earlier this year, which hit 126,033 signatures – however, it was closed early due to the general election. Ms Roome, who is a member of the Bereaved Parents for Online Safety group, said: “When you’ve lost a child, you don’t want anyone else to go through the horrific pain of losing a child – it is so unbearably painful.” A spokesperson for Meta, the company that owns Instagram, said: “We are in touch directly with Ms Roome and will cooperate fully with any law enforcement investigation, including responding to any data requests.” TikTok said it met with Ms Roome last month to explain to her that it no longer has Jools’s search history because the law requires certain companies to delete people’s personal data unless it is needed for running a business. The company said a valid request from law enforcement is among the exceptions to this legal requirement, but the police did not contact it until 2024, when his TikTok information was no longer available. The Independent understands Snapchat is in contact with Ms Roome. The company said: “We have extra protections for under 18s and offer parental tools so parents can see who their teens are communicating with and report any concerns. We support the aims of the Online Safety Act and are able to provide parents with access to data, once we have followed legal steps to verify their identification.” If you are experiencing feelings of distress, or are struggling to cope, you can speak to the Samaritans, in confidence, on 116 123 (UK and ROI), email jo@samaritans.org, or visit the Samaritans website to find details of your nearest branch. If you are based in the USA, and you or someone you know needs mental health assistance right now, call or text 988, or visit 988lifeline.org to access online chat from the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. This is a free, confidential crisis hotline that is available to everyone 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If you are in another country, you can go to www.befrienders.org to find a helpline near you.

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