Surgeon General calls for warning labels on social media platforms

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy announced Monday that he will push for a warning label on social media platforms to warn parents that using the platforms could harm teens’ mental health .

Warning labels – like those that appear on tobacco and alcohol products – are one of the most powerful tools available to the nation’s top health official, but Dr. Murthy does not cannot demand them unilaterally; The action requires congressional approval.

The proposal builds on several years of escalating warnings from the surgeon general. In a May 2023 advisory, he recommended that parents immediately set limits on phone use and urged Congress to quickly develop health and safety standards for technology platforms.

He also called on tech companies to make changes: share internal data on the health impact of their products; enable independent security audits; and restrict features like push notifications, autoplay, and infinite scrolling, which it says “attack developing brains and contribute to overuse.”

In an interview, Dr. Murthy said he had been deeply frustrated by the platforms’ reluctance to do so.

“I don’t think we can just rely on hoping that the platforms can solve this problem on their own,” he said. “They turned 20.”

He said he’s “pretty optimistic” that lawmakers will introduce a bill requiring a warning label, which he said would appear regularly on screens when people use social media sites.

The push for a warning label is sparking a battle between the Biden administration and the tech industry, which has taken several states to court over social media laws.

Tech companies will likely argue that the science on the harmful effects of social media is not established. They will also invoke free speech law, arguing that the government cannot force companies to display a warning on a product, which is sometimes described as “forced speech.”

“Legally speaking, this is no different than a Trump administration surgeon general declaring that there needs to be a warning label on mainstream media because he considers it to be fake news.” , said Adam Kovacevich, chief executive of Chamber of Progress, a technology lobbying firm. “It is still an abuse of power by the government to encroach on speech.”

That challenge could find a sympathetic ear in U.S. courts, with a cohort of judges showing less deference to public health regulations than their predecessors, said Claudia E. Haupt, a professor of law and political science at the Northeastern University School of Law.

For more than a decade, cigarette companies have successfully used the First Amendment argument to fend off a requirement to print a graphic photograph of diseased lungs on tobacco products, she said.

TikTok did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the surgeon general’s proposal. Spokespersons for YouTube and X decided to comment.

The surgeon general’s call for action received support from two senators, Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, and Marsha Blackburn, Republican of Tennessee, authors of the Kids Online Safety Act, which would require platforms to take a series of measures to protect minors on the Internet. social media, but includes warning labels.

“We are pleased that the Surgeon General – America’s top doctor – continues to call attention to the harmful impact of social media on our children,” the two senators said in a joint statement.

Older warning labels have had significant effects on behavior. In 1965, after a landmark report from the surgeon general, Congress voted to require all cigarette packages distributed in the United States to carry a warning that use of the product “may be dangerous to your health.”

Thus began a 50-year decline in smoking. When warning labels first appeared, about 42 percent of American adults were daily cigarette smokers; By 2021, this share had fallen to 11.5 percent.

There is fierce debate among researchers over whether social media is causing the child and adolescent mental health crisis. In his new book “The Anxious Generation,” social psychologist Jonathan Haidt points to the rise of smartphones in the late 2000s as an inflection point that led to a sharp increase in suicidal behavior and reports of hopelessness.

Other experts say that although the rise of social media has coincided with a decline in well-being, there is no evidence that one is the cause of the other, and instead point to factors such as economic hardship , social isolation, racism, school shootings and the opioid crisis. .

In an essay published Monday in the opinion section of The New York Times, Dr. Murthy highlighted research showing that teens who spent more than three hours a day on social media faced a significantly higher risk of health problems. mental, and that 46% of adolescents declared that social networks made them feel less good about their body.

American teens spend an average of 4.8 hours per day on social media platforms like YouTube, TikTok and Instagram, according to a Gallup survey of more than 1,500 teens released last fall.

In an interview last month, Dr. Murthy said he had repeatedly heard from young people who “couldn’t leave the docks,” often finding that hours had passed despite their intention to just check their feeds .

“The platforms are designed to maximize the time we all spend on them,” he said. “It’s one thing to do this to an adult and another to do it to a child, whose impulse control is still developing and whose brain is at a sensitive stage of development.”

Dr. Murthy has long indicated that he views social media as a health risk. In its May 2023 opinion on the subject, it warned that “there are many indicators that social media may also pose a significant risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents.”

However, he warned at the time that the effects of social media were not fully understood. Research suggests that platforms pose both risks and benefits, providing a community for young people who might otherwise feel marginalized.

On Monday, it said it had concluded that “the balance between risk and harm does not justify the use of social media for adolescents.”

“We’ve put young people in a position where, in order to get certain benefits, like connections with their friends, we tell them they have to endure significant harms,” he said. He added: “We now have enough information to act to make platforms safer. »

Dr. Murthy has consistently emphasized his tone of urgency about the dangers of social media, comparing the current moment to historic battles in public health history.

“One of the most important lessons I learned in medical school is that in an emergency, you do not have the luxury of waiting for perfect information,” he wrote Monday in his essay. “You evaluate the available facts, you use good judgment and you act quickly. »

Sapna Maheshwari, Nico Grant And Maya Miller reports contributed.

Leave a Comment