Surgeon general calls for social media warning labels

WASHINGTON – The U.S. surgeon general has called on Congress to require warning labels on social media platforms similar to those now mandatory on cigarette boxes.

Dr. Vivek Murthy

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 proven safe,” Murthy said. “Evidence from tobacco studies show that warning labels can increase awareness and change behavior.”

Murthy said that just a warning label wouldn’t make social media safe for young people, but it would be a necessary step.

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 car seats, baby formula, medication, and other products children use.

To comply with federal regulations, social media companies have banned kids under 13 from signing up for their platforms. However, children have been shown to quickly get around the bans 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 enter a passcode to keep watching.

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

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

The surgeon general is also recommending that companies be required to share all their data on health effects with independent scientists and the public, which they currently don’t do, and allow independent safety audits.

Murthy said schools and parents also need to participate in providing phone-free times and that doctors, nurses, and other clinicians should help guide families toward safer practices.

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