Surgeon General calls for warning labels on social media platforms

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy announced Monday that he would push for a warning label on social media platforms to warn parents that using the platforms could harm teenagers' mental health.

Warning labels – like those that appear on tobacco and alcohol products – are one of the most powerful tools available to the nation's top health officials, but Dr. Murthy cannot require them unilaterally; the action requires congressional approval. No such legislation has yet been introduced in either house.

A warning label would send a powerful message to parents “that social media has not been proven safe,” Dr. Murthy wrote in an essay published Monday in the opinion section of the New York Times.

In his essay, he considered the effects of social media on children and adolescents to be a public health risk on par with road deaths or contaminated food.

“Why have we failed to respond to the harms of social media when they are no less urgent or widespread than those caused by unsafe cars, planes or food?” Dr. Murthy wrote. “These harms are not a failure of willpower and parenting; they are the consequence of releasing powerful technology without adequate security, transparency or accountability.”

Dr Murthy highlighted research which has shown that teenagers who spend more than three hours a day on social media are at significantly higher risk of mental health problems and that 46% of teenagers say social media makes them feel worse with one's body.

According to a Gallup poll of more than 1,500 teens released last fall, U.S. teens spend an average of 4.8 hours a day on social media platforms like YouTube, TikTok and Instagram.

In an interview last month, Dr Murthy said he had repeatedly heard from young people who “can't get off the platforms”, often finding that hours had passed when they had intended to simply check their feeds.

“Platforms are designed to maximize the time we all spend on them,” he said. “It's one thing to do that to an adult, but it's another thing to do that to a child, whose impulse control is still developing, whose brain is in a sensitive stage of development.”

Past warning labels have had significant effects on behavior. In 1965, after a historic report by the Surgeon General, Congress voted to require that all cigarette packages distributed in the United States carry a warning that use of the product “may be hazardous to your health.”

That was the beginning of a 50-year decline in smoking. When the warning labels appeared, about 42 percent of U.S. adults were daily cigarette smokers; by 2021, that share had fallen to 11.5%.

There is heated debate among researchers over whether social media is behind the child and adolescent mental health crisis. In his new book, “The Anxious Generation,” social psychologist Jonathan Haidt points to the release of Apple's iPhone in 2007 as a turning point, triggering a sharp increase in suicidal behavior and reports of hopelessness.

Other experts say that although the rise of social media has coincided with the decline of well-being, there is no evidence that one has caused the other, and instead point to factors such as economic hardship, social isolation, racism, school shootings and the opioid crisis. .

Dr. Murthy has long indicated that he considers social media a health risk. In May 2023 he issued a warning on the subject, warning that “there are ample indicators that social media may also pose a profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents”.

In that statement, Dr. Murthy acknowledged that the effects of social media on adolescent mental health were not fully understood. Research suggests that platforms offer both risks and benefits, providing community to young people who might otherwise feel marginalized.

However, he urged parents to immediately start setting limits on their children's social media use and keep mealtimes device-free.

With his call for a warning label, Dr. Murthy is further raising the tone of urgency.

“One of the most important lessons I learned in medical school was that in an emergency you don't have the luxury of waiting for perfect information,” he wrote. “You evaluate the available facts, use your best judgment and act quickly.”

Recalling the words of a tearful mother whose son had died by suicide after being bullied online, he compared the current moment to the landmark public health campaigns of the past.

“There is no seat belt for parents to clip on, no helmet to clip on, no guarantee that trusted experts have investigated and vouched for these platforms to be safe for children,” he wrote. “It's just parents and their kids, trying to figure it out on their own, versus some of the best product engineers and most well-resourced companies in the world.”

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