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US surgeon general seeks social media warning labels

June 17, 2024

Vivek Murthy says there is a need to remind teens and parents about the adverse effects of social media on mental health. The idea was inspired by tobacco warnings.

Nine social media apps on a smartphone
Spending more than three hours a day on social media can double the risk of anxiety and depression symptoms in teensImage: Jonathan Raa/NurPhoto/picture alliance

The top medical official in the United States has called on Congress to add a warning label to social media websites, similar to the warning labels found on cigarette packaging.

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy said social media is a contributing factor in the mental health crisis among young people in a guest essay that was published in The New York Times on Monday.

"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 wrote.

"A surgeon general's warning label, which requires congressional action, would regularly remind parents and adolescents that social media has not been proved safe. Evidence from tobacco studies show that warning labels can increase awareness and change behavior."

What did the surgeon general say?

Murthy pointed to research showing that spending more than three hours a day on social media doubles the risk of anxiety and depression symptoms for adolescents.

He said that schools should "ensure that classroom learning and social time are phone-free experiences" and that parents should create "phone-free zones around bedtime, meals and social gatherings."

The US surgeon general said lawmakers had managed to address public health issues in the past like when they required seatbelts and airbags in cars, or when the the federal government introduced tobacco warning labels in 1965.

No hope? How social media changes our outlook on life

Murthy's proposal has received some support from online safety advocates.

"Social media today is like tobacco decades ago: It's a product whose business model depends on addicting kids," said Josh Golin, executive director at children's welfare watchdog Fairplay.

"And as with cigarettes, a surgeon general's warning label is a critical step toward mitigating the threat to children."

zc/lo (AP, AFP, Reuters)