Surgeon General Calls for Placing Warning Labels on Social Media Platforms

Vivek H. Murthy views social media as a contributor the mental health crisis in young people, and he suggests tobacco-style warnings on the apps

View from the waist down of kids sitting on a bench looking at their cellphones
A 2019 study found that teenagers who spend more than three hours per day on social media have double the risk for anxiety and depression symptoms. Maskot via Getty Images

The U.S. surgeon general, Vivek H. Murthy, is calling for putting a warning label on social media platforms that states they are associated with mental health harms in adolescents. In the past, similar warnings on tobacco products are thought to have played a role in reducing smoking rates, which Murthy argues is evidence that they can change behavior.

“The mental health crisis among young people is an emergency—and social media has emerged as an important contributor,” Murthy writes in an opinion piece in the New York Times.

A 2019 study found that adolescents who spend more than three hours a day on social media have double the risk of depression and anxiety symptoms, Murthy writes. As of last summer, teens spent an average of 4.8 hours per day using social media.

“Social media today is like tobacco decades ago: It’s a product whose business model depends on addicting kids,” says Josh Golin, executive director at Fairplay, an organization dedicated to ending marketing to children, per Michelle Chapman of the Associated Press (AP). “And as with cigarettes, a surgeon general’s warning label is a critical step toward mitigating the threat to children.”

However, some experts point out that studies on the potential harms of social media have come to mixed conclusions.

“The op-ed by Dr. Murthy really just says that social media is associated with significant mental health harms for adolescents, which feels like a very sweeping statement,” Michaeline Jensen, a psychologist at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, tells Stat News’ Annalisa Merelli. “The actual research evidence on this question is far from compelling to support that strong of a statement.”

In a 2023 advisory, Murthy acknowledges that social media can have both negative and positive impacts on children, and it can serve as a source of connection for marginalized teens. But he also points out that almost half of adolescents between 13 and 17 years old say social media makes them feel worse about their body image. Almost two in three adolescents are exposed to hate-based content on these platforms.

A 2023 Pew Research Center survey found that more than half of teens use TikTok daily, about half use Snapchat daily and more than three-quarters use YouTube daily. One in five said they use YouTube “almost constantly.” Teens report social media having both a positive and negative impact on themselves and other people their age.

Some states have already passed laws aimed at limiting children’s use of social media. The European Union recently enacted rules to protect people online and make it harder to share illegal content.

Murthy’s proposed warning labels would need to be approved by Congress before taking effect. However, he argues that warnings are not the only action needed to make social media safe for children. In his 2023 advisory, the surgeon general outlined steps for protecting young people on social media, such as stronger protections and standards from policymakers, more privacy protections and more transparency and data sharing from technology companies.

“What we need … is something clear that people can see regularly when they use social media that tells them, frankly, what we now know as a public health and medical establishment,” Murthy tells the Washington Post’s Cristiano Lima-Strong and Aaron Gregg.

“I am hoping [a warning label] would be combined with a lot of other work that Congress has been trying to do to improve the safety and design and privacy of social media products,” Jenny Radesky, a developmental behavioral pediatrician at the University of Michigan, says to the AP. “Those two things would have to go hand in hand.”

Others, however, see warning labels as violating the First Amendment. “Putting a warning label on online speech isn’t just scientifically unsound, it’s at odds with the constitutional right to free speech,” Adam Kovacevich, chief executive for the tech lobbying firm Chamber of Progress, tells the AP.

In his op-ed, Murthy calls for legislation protecting people from online harassment and exposure to extreme violence and sexual content, preventing platforms from collecting data on children and requiring companies to share data on health effects.

“While the platforms claim they are making their products safer, Americans need more than words,” he writes. “We need proof.”

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