US surgeon general calls for warning labels on social media platforms

Social media use is prevalent among young people, with up to 95 percent of those aged 13 to 17 saying they use a social media platform [File: Dado Ruvic/Illustration/Reuters]

Dr Vivek Murthy says social media is a contributing factor in the mental health crisis among young people.

The United States surgeon general has called on Congress to require social media platforms to carry warning labels on their effects on young people’s lives, similar to those now mandatory on cigarette boxes.

In a Monday opinion piece in The New York Times, Dr Vivek Murthy said that social media is a contributing factor in the mental health crisis among young people.

“It is time to require a surgeon general’s warning label on social media platforms, stating that social media is associated with significant mental health harms for adolescents. A surgeon general’s warning label, which requires congressional action, would regularly remind parents and adolescents that social media has not been proved safe,” Murthy said. “Evidence from tobacco studies show that warning labels can increase awareness and change behavior.”

Murthy, who acts as the top government spokesperson on public health and is known as the nation’s doctor, said that the use of just a warning label would not make social media safe for young people, but would be a part of the steps needed.

Social media use is prevalent among young people, with up to 95 percent of those aged 13 to 17 saying that they use a social media platform, and more than a third saying that they use social media “almost constantly,” according to 2022 data from the Pew Research Center.

“Social media today is like tobacco decades ago: It’s a product whose business model depends on addicting kids. And as with cigarettes, a surgeon general’s warning label is a critical step toward mitigating the threat to children,” Josh Golin, executive director of Fairplay, an organisation dedicated to ending marketing to children, said in a statement.

Getting the labels on social media platforms would take congressional action – and it is not clear how quickly that might happen, even with apparent bipartisan unity around child safety online. Lawmakers have held multiple congressional hearings on child online safety and legislation is in the works. Still, the last federal law aimed at protecting children online was enacted in 1998, six years before Facebook’s founding.

“I am hoping that 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,” said Dr Jenny Radesky, a developmental behavioural paediatrician at the University of Michigan and leader at the American Academy of Pediatrics. “Those two things would have to go hand in hand, because there’s so much that Congress can do to follow the steps of the United Kingdom and the European Union in passing laws that take into account what kids need when they’re interacting with digital products.”

Industry pushback

Even with Congressional approval, warning labels would likely be challenged in the courts by tech companies.

“Putting a warning label on online speech isn’t just scientifically unsound, it’s at odds with the constitutional right to free speech,” said Adam Kovacevich, CEO of the tech industry policy group Chamber of Progress. “It’s surprising to see the US surgeon general attacking social media when teens themselves say it provides an important outlet for social connection.”

Last year, Murthy warned that there wasn’t enough evidence to show that social media is safe for children and teens. He said at the time that policymakers needed to address the harms of social media the same way they regulate things like car seats, baby formula, medication and other products children use.

To comply with federal regulation, social media companies already ban kids under 13 from signing up to their platforms but children have been shown to easily get around the bans, both with and without their parents’ consent.

Other measures social platforms have taken to address concerns about children’s mental health can also be easily circumvented. For instance, TikTok introduced a default 60-minute time limit for users under 18. But once the limit is reached, minors can simply enter a passcode to keep watching.

Murthy believes the impact of social media on young people should be a more pressing concern.

“Why is it that we have failed to respond to the harms of social media when they are no less urgent or widespread than those posed by unsafe cars, planes or food? These harms are not a failure of willpower and parenting; they are the consequence of unleashing powerful technology without adequate safety measures, transparency or accountability,” he wrote.

In January the CEOs of Meta, TikTok, X and other social media companies testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee as parents worry that they’re not doing enough to protect young people. The executives touted existing safety tools on their platforms and the work they’ve done with nonprofits and law enforcement to protect minors.

Murthy said on Monday that Congress needs to implement legislation that will protect young people from online harassment, abuse and exploitation and from exposure to extreme violence and sexual content.

“The measures should prevent platforms from collecting sensitive data from children and should restrict the use of features like push notifications, autoplay and infinite scroll, which prey on developing brains and contribute to excessive use,” Murthy wrote.

Senators Marsha Blackburn and Richard Blumenthal supported Murthy’s message Monday.

“We are pleased that the Surgeon General — America’s top doctor — continues to bring attention to the harmful impact that social media has on our children,” the senators said in a prepared statement.



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