TV and Radio

TV review: The role of social media in murder of 13-year-old boy

Olly Stephens was lured to a park where he was stabbed to death. Picture by Thames Valley Police/PA

:: Panorama - A Social Media Murder: Olly's Story, Monday, BBC One, 8.30pm

A normal teenage boy, the same age as one of my sons, whose young life was tragically cut short two years ago is the subject of a Panorama investigation.

Olly Stephens (13) from Reading was stabbed in a field close to his home in January 2020.

But as the programme reveals, it was only after his murder that his parents realised the violent and disturbing world he had been exposed to through his phone.

It begins with his mum Amanda recalling the last moments she saw her son alive.

"He said, 'Don't worry, I'll have my location on', he knew that I would like to know where he was," she said.

"And he did say 'Love you mum, love you'."

Fifteen minutes later, he had been murdered.

As the documentary explains, the clues to what happened to the teenager "were found inside a parallel universe – the world of social media".

Reporter Marianna Spring examines the role social media played in his death and reveals the violence and abuse young people are regularly exposed or subjected to online.

Olly was stabbed to death by two teenage boys after they recruited a girl online to lure him there. The entire attack was planned on social media and triggered by a dispute in an online chat group.

His parents were shocked to discover the violence and hate their son and his friends see through their phones.

"It's this secret world where you can do and say exactly what you want... it is a world we had no idea existed and that he was being attacked by it," said Amanda.

Father Stuart added: "They haunted him, tracked him and executed him through social media."

Chief Inspector Andy Howard of Thames Valley Police tells the programme that Olly's story stands out because of the huge role social media played in the case and reveals they were "taken aback by the amount of digital evidence... it is unprecedented investigation in that respect".

The evidence led to two boys, aged 13 and 14 at the time of the killing, being convicted of murder and a girl, who was 13, admitting manslaughter.

But police fear the evidence of bullying and violent videos featuring knives found on the killers' phones is just "the tip of a very large iceberg".

Spring set out to uncover what young teenagers are seeing on social media by creating a fake account of a 13-year-old boy, using an AI-generated photograph, on five social media sites popular with that age group.

She wanted to see what content would be shown and recommended on social media platforms and test whether sites moderate videos and images, in particular of knives similar to those shared by those convicted of murdering Olly.

After running the dummy account for two weeks, she said the results were striking.

Among the recommended content suggested to the fake account on Instagram, YouTube and Facebook were people showing off knives, weapons for sale and posts glorifying violence.

Spring also found how easy it was to actively search for pro-knife groups, videos and pages and discovered no action was taken against a post showing off a knife that was shared on the 13-year-old's account.

MPs are considering laws that could force social media companies to do more to protect children, with an online safety bill currently passing through Parliament.

Ultimately young people should not be seeing violent content through their phones and companies need to be held to account. More measures are needed to verify the age of young users and limit their exposure to harmful posts.

As Olly's father Stuart said: "Social media is not guilty of the murder, but it did nothing to protect him, and without it he'd still be here."

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