Surgeon general demands warning label on social media

A teen being bombarded with negative messages on social media.

Citing a mental health emergency, the U.S. surgeon general is demanding warning labels for social media similar to the ones found on cigarettes and alcohol.

Dr. Vivek Murthy wrote an op-ed in The New York Times on Monday that he said illustrated the crisis facing young people. Murthy pointed to a 2019 American Medical Association study that said that teens who spend three hours a day on social media have double the risk of depression and anxiety than those who don’t. But teens are online much more than three hours a day. A Gallup poll found that they were on social media almost five hours every day in the summer of 2023.

He started the column with, “One of the most important lessons I learned in medical school was that in an emergency, you don’t have the luxury to wait for perfect information. You assess the available facts, you use your best judgment, and you act quickly.”

Murthy cited tobacco labels, which were signed into law in 1965 after a link was found between smoking and lung cancer, saying the warnings changed people’s smoking habits, NBC News reported. He argued that social media labels would show the same results and said a recent survey of Latino parents indicated that 76% of those polled would “limit or monitor their children’s social media use.”

Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg earlier apologized to parents who said their children either committed suicide or were exploited because of their social media use.

“I’m sorry for everything you’ve all gone through,” he said at a Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing in January, NBC News reported. “It’s terrible. No one should have to go through the things that your families have suffered.”

While Murthy calls for the warnings, he cannot place them on the sites himself. Congress has that power.

“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,” Murthy said. “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 that the warnings “should shield young people from online harassment, abuse and exploitation and from exposure to extreme violence and sexual content that too often appears in algorithm-driven feeds.”

It would also prevent data collection by social media companies and restrict them from using “push notifications, autoplay and infinite scroll, which prey on developing brains and contribute to excessive use.”

But he said even with warning labels, society needs to step up also since, as CNN reported, the warnings don’t require people to listen to them.

Schools, in his opinion, should have phone-free learning and social time. Parents should wait until after middle school to allow their kids to have social media and create phone-free zones before bedtime, during meals and at social events.

Some teens are already buying into not having social media. There are several “teen-focused” groups such as the Log Off movement and Wired Human to help kids disconnect.

This isn’t the first time Murthy has warned about children using social media, CNN reported. Last year, he issued an advisory that said there isn’t enough evidence to know if social media is safe for young people’s mental health, adding that the platforms are “a profound risk of harm.” He also told companies to make sure minimum age requirements are enforced, ABC News reported.

States are already taking control of social media and its accessibility to teens.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill earlier this year prohibiting children under 14 from signing up for social media accounts while 16-year-olds need a parent’s permission, CNN reported.

New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said she would sign a law banning social media from using algorithms in children’s social media feeds and would block companies from sharing the data of people under the age of 18.

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