Exclusive:Instagram apologises for ‘ignoring’ requests from grieving mum for data that could relate to teen son’s death

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Ellen Roome has no idea why her son Jools Sweeney, 14, would kill himself - she’s asking social media companies for answers.

Instagram has issued a grovelling apology to a grieving mum, who accused the tech giant of “ignoring” multiple requests for data around her teen son’s mysterious death.

Jools Sweeney, 14, was last seen on a security camera saying goodbye to his friends on an ordinary day in April 2022. An hour and a half later, his mum Ellen Roome walked into his room to find her son not breathing.

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It is believed that Jools likely killed himself, however a coroner was unable to rule his death as a suicide as they couldn’t be certain he was in a suicidal mood. Now Ellen wants to get answers from Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok over what Jools was watching in the run up to his death.

“I have no idea why he did it and I want answers,” Ellen, of Cheltenham, told NationalWorld. The 48-year-old is campaigning for parents to be sent their children’s social media data when they die, and she wants to open up a debate about access in emergencies when they are alive. More than 100,000 people signed Ellen’s petition before Parliament dissolved for the general election, meaning it will be debated when a new batch of MPs are elected.

Ellen Roome with son Jools Sweeney. Credit: Ellen RoomeEllen Roome with son Jools Sweeney. Credit: Ellen Roome
Ellen Roome with son Jools Sweeney. Credit: Ellen Roome | Ellen Roome

From 1 April under the Online Safety Act, coroners have been able request data from social media companies via regulator Ofcom when investigating a child’s death. However, parents do not automatically get this, and Jools’ inquest happened before this law had come into place.

As such, Ellen has written to Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok, asking for information from Jools’ accounts so she can finally get answers about her son’s death. However, she said that for weeks Instagram ignored her emails, while she’s been left confused by the “unclear” responses from TikTok and Snapchat. 

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NationalWorld asked each of the tech giants if they still hold any of Jools’ data, what their policy is around storing data and how are they complying with the Online Safety Act? Instagram ignored all of our questions, and instead a Meta spokesperson said: “Our thoughts are with Jools’ family and friends at this difficult time. We are in touch directly with Ms Roome and will cooperate fully with any law enforcement investigation, including responding to any data requests.”

All further requests for clarification from us were ignored by Meta. Ellen said that days after NationalWorld’s first interview, Instagram finally responded to her offering “apologies” that her emails were “unanswered”. 

Matt Sweeney, Ellen Roome and Jools Sweeney. Credit: Ellen RoomeMatt Sweeney, Ellen Roome and Jools Sweeney. Credit: Ellen Roome
Matt Sweeney, Ellen Roome and Jools Sweeney. Credit: Ellen Roome | Ellen Roome

She told NationalWorld: “It’s been ridiculously hard work trying to get information from them. The fact that Instagram says that they are in conversation with me - all I’ve had is an email saying they will come back to me but they haven’t actually come back to me with anything.”

In response to the same questions, Snapchat said it doesn’t publicly comment on individual cases however it confirmed it was in contact with Ellen. A spokesperson said: “Our hearts go out to Ms Roome and her family for the loss of Jools. 

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“We want Snapchatters to have a safe and positive experience which is why 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.”

The tech platform said it understood why it is important for bereaved parents to have access to this information, and it requires confirmation of the relationship between the user and their parents and additional legal information. It added that while Snapchat content deletes by default, it can preserve available account information when requested by the police.

TikTok is the only one of the tech companies which has arranged a meeting with Ellen. It said a senior member of staff explained that it no longer has watch or search history for Jools, because the law requires companies to delete people's personal data unless it is needed for running a business. 

Jools Sweeney with mum Ellen Roome. Credit: Ellen RoomeJools Sweeney with mum Ellen Roome. Credit: Ellen Roome
Jools Sweeney with mum Ellen Roome. Credit: Ellen Roome | Ellen Roome

The company said there are exceptions to this law, such as if police request for data to be preserved, however it said it was not contacted by officers until 2024 when the information was no longer available. TikTok said it was not trying to prevent Ellen from getting answers.

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The grieving mum told NationalWorld that she found the complex process “infuriating”. “It’s not that simple with these companies, why is it such a problem to tell me,” she asked. “The only way I can get answers is going via journalists - they’ll respond to a journalist in the same day while leaving me hanging for days without an answer. That’s what’s infuriating. Why can’t they respond to me?”

Ellen is part of a campaigning group of parents, whose children’s deaths are linked to social media. Archie Battersbee was left with devastating brain damage six days before Jools’ death, after some sort of strangulation prank went wrong, with mum Hollie Dance fearing that he took part in an online challenge. Following a long-running legal battle, the High Court ruled his life support should be switched off on 6 August 2022. 

Senior Coroner for Essex, Lincoln Brookes, said he could not "rule out the possibility" that Archie had taken part in an online challenge, but police hadn't found any evidence he had. Hollie also wants data from the tech companies to try and find out what happened to her son Archie.

Earlier this month, Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper said Labour would look to legislate around Ellen and Hollie’s demands if the party forms the next government. She told the BBC: “We do need to pursue this again, and there’s a series of areas where we need really quite urgent action around online safety, around implementing online safety measures.”

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Ellen’s MP before the election, Alex Chalk, the current Justice Secretary, was helping the family try to reopen Jools’ inquest through the High Court.

Ralph Blackburn is NationalWorld’s politics editor based in Westminster, where he gets special access to Parliament, MPs and government briefings. If you liked this article you can follow Ralph on X (Twitter) here and sign up to his free weekly newsletter Politics Uncovered, which brings you the latest analysis and gossip from Westminster every Sunday morning.

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