Surgeon General Wants to Put Warning Labels on Social Media

Four people stand side by side against a wall, all focused on their smartphones. They are casually dressed: the first person wears a white T-shirt and headphones, the second a flannel shirt over a beige top, the third a white T-shirt and denim shorts, and the fourth a blue polo shirt.

United States Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy called on Congress to implement warning labels on social media in a guest op-ed in The New York Times Monday.

In the guest essay, Murthy writes of a warning that would alert parents of young social media users about its adverse mental health effects. However, Congressional action is needed to implement a Surgeon General’s warning — it is not enough that Dr. Murthy thinks it is a good idea.

Murthy emphasized the public health concern he sees in social media, noting “the mental health crisis among young people is an emergency” in his New York Times essay. The Surgeon General even likened the mental health effects of social media to issues like tobacco and car crashes.

“This January the F.A.A. grounded about 170 planes when a door plug came off one Boeing 737 Max 9 while the plane was in the air,” Murthy urged in his essay. “And the following month, a massive recall of dairy products was conducted because of a listeria contamination that claimed two lives.”

Specifically, he notes, “Adolescents who spend more than three hours a day on social media face double the risk of anxiety and depression symptoms, and the average daily use in this age group, as of the summer of 2023, was 4.8 hours.” The warning he calls on Congress to put in place “would regularly remind parents and adolescents that social media has not been proved safe.”

Murthy also cited the Surgeon General’s warnings on tobacco products as evidence of such measures’ effectiveness, saying, “Evidence from tobacco studies show that warning labels can increase awareness and change behavior.”

However, his evidence for the efficacy of a social media warning label was a bit more dubious.

“When asked if a warning from the surgeon general would prompt them to limit or monitor their children’s social media use, 76 percent of people in one recent survey of Latino parents said yes,” Murthy wrote in his New York Times essay — which is specific to the point of saying nearly nothing at all about the possible effects of a social media warning. However, it should be noted that there is plenty more research on tobacco warnings.

Further, it isn’t clear precisely what Murthy’s suggested warning label would look like. Unlike those on tobacco products, which are visible on a physical product used by the target audience, it’s less apparent where the social media label would go. Additionally, Murthy’s urging to Congress focuses on an appeal to parents who are not necessarily on the same social media platforms as their kids.

Murthy has also called for more extensive actions, including legislation focused on the mental well-being of young social media users and education in schools.

Image credits: Header photo licensed via Depositphotos.