US Surgeon General Can’t Even Convince Himself That Social Media Warning Labels Are a Good Idea

A person with long hair leans on a table, their face not visible. They are using a smartphone with their right hand, wearing bracelets on their left wrist. The background is blurred, showing indistinct shapes and colors.

As U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy attempted to advocate for warning labels on social media, he made a stronger case against the practice.

In a New York Times guest essay published on Monday, Murthy plead Congress to issue warning labels on social media, similar to those that appear on tobacco products, notifying parents against the negative effects the platforms can have on adolescents. However, as the op-ed continues, the argument shifts away from the effectiveness of labels and in favor of larger solutions — and it’s a far more convincing case.

Murthy first acknowledges the mental health crisis seen in young people, especially those who are social media users. It’s a valid point and a strong foundation for a call to action. The Surgeon General compares the issue to more tangible health concerns like tobacco use or car crashes. The latter further sets up a fine analogy by way of warning labels, which Murthy says helped reduce the use of tobacco products.

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

Yet, the similarities seem to end there. Murthy never offers an example of how his proposed labels would look, which is especially nebulous considering the warnings would be for parents rather than the adolescent users. Surgeon General warnings on a pack of cigarettes, for example, are seen by those smoking them, and that’s who the message is for.

However, a warning on social media might not be seen by parents or guardians who aren’t on the same platforms as their children. Further, it’s unclear where and how the label would show up. Would it appear when someone downloads an app? Would it appear every time someone loads the platform? And would it appear for all users, including adults without children? It seems Murthy is asking for something without knowing exactly what the something is. That, or he hasn’t taken the time to illuminate those he’s trying to convince on the details of his plan.

And the stats he boasts regarding the effectiveness of tobacco product warnings don’t translate to ones for social media.

“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,” he says, providing the only solid figure for such a use case. It hardly tells anyone how parents as a whole might respond.

The Surgeon General’s public health comparisons continue while further moving away from his original argument for warning labels.

“There is no seatbelt for parents to click, no helmet to snap in place, no assurance that trusted experts have investigated and ensured that these platforms are safe for our kids,” Murthy notes.

The line underscores where the similarities between a mental health crisis worsened by social media and something like car safety start and end. Both pose serious public health concerns and need to be addressed. The problem is they cannot be addressed in exactly the same ways.

Murthy makes this evident himself in his emotional pleas, putting desperate parents at the center of his ask.

“One of the worst things for a parent is to know your children are in danger yet be unable to do anything about it,” he writes. “That is how parents tell me they feel when it comes to social media — helpless and alone in the face of toxic content and hidden harms.”

Murthy continues, detailing the heartbreaking story of a diligent mother who nonetheless lost her child to suicide after enduring online bullying. This mother seemed to do everything right, “monitoring her daughter’s accounts and phone daily,” in the Surgeon General’s own words.

What, then, would a warning label provide other than a condescending reminder of the anxieties already plaguing this mother?

“As a father of a 6- and a 7-year-old who have already asked about social media, I worry about how my wife and I will know when to let them have accounts,” Murthy adds, admitting his own limitations. “How will we monitor their activity, given the increasingly sophisticated techniques for concealing it? How will we know if our children are being exposed to harmful content or dangerous people? It’s no wonder that when it comes to managing social media for their kids, so many parents are feeling stress and anxiety — and even shame.”

This is not to disparage Murthy or the mother he highlights, nor any other parent struggling to contend with the dangers of social media. But if the person hoping to issue the warning doesn’t have the answers, how will any other parents fare in the face of a mere label?

Not far into his guest essay, Murthy emphasizes the need for other solutions as well, namely legislation. Here, the Surgeon General is not only more convincing, but he seems more passionate as well, possibly because those were his first arguments.

“The advisory I issued a year ago about social media and young people’s mental health included specific recommendations for policymakers, platforms and the public to make social media safer for kids,” he notes in the New York Times op-ed. “Such measures, which already have strong bipartisan support, remain the priority.”

It feels as though the warning labels are a last-ditch effort after seeing little to no action following Murthy’s first recommendation. With that, it’s easy to see why the Surgeon General’s warning label plea to Congress feels so meek. It is. And rather than focusing on Murthy’s latest argument on how to respond to the negative impact of social media on children, we should revisit Murthy’s original arguments on the matter.

Image credits: Header photo licensed via Depositphotos.