Surgeon general calls for social media warning labels

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In a recent opinion piece for The New York Times, Dr. Vivek Murthy, the U.S. Surgeon General, called on Congress to require warning labels on social media platforms, similar to those on cigarette boxes. Dr. Murthy highlighted the significant role of social media 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.”

Dr. Murthy emphasized that while a warning label alone won’t make social media safe for young people, it is an essential step among many needed measures.

Social media use is widespread among young people, with up to 95% of youth aged 13 to 17 using a social media platform, and over a third using it “almost constantly,” according to 2022 data from the Pew Research Center.

Last year, Murthy cautioned that there isn’t enough evidence to prove social media is safe for children and teens. He urged policymakers to address the dangers of social media with the same rigor applied to regulations for car seats, baby formula, medication, and other children’s products.

Although federal regulations prohibit children under 13 from signing up for social media, kids often bypass these restrictions with or without parental consent. Other safety measures, like TikTok’s default 60-minute time limit for users under 18, can be easily circumvented by entering a passcode to continue watching.

Murthy believes the impact of social media on young people demands urgent attention. “Why have we 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, CEOs of Meta, TikTok, X, and other social media companies testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee amidst concerns from parents about the insufficient protection for young users. The executives highlighted their existing safety tools and collaborations with nonprofits and law enforcement to safeguard minors.

Murthy urged Congress to implement legislation to 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 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.

The surgeon general also recommended that social media companies be required to share their health effects data with independent scientists and the public, and allow independent safety audits.

Additionally, Murthy called on schools and parents to provide phone-free times and encouraged doctors, nurses, and other clinicians to guide families toward safer practices.

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