Social media should be treated like cigarettes, says surgeon general

Twitter app on the Samsung Galaxy Z Flip 5 cover screen.
Joe Maring / Digital Trends

Social media is unhealthy, at least according to the U.S. surgeon general. Dr. Vivek H. Murthy penned a guest column in The New York Times about the risks of social media on young people, and he called on Congress to act on a tobacco-style surgeon general’s warning for social media websites.

“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,” Dr. 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.”

Before you step back and ask what this has to do with cigarettes, that’s a comparison Dr. Murthy himself made. The surgeon general cited a study of warning labels on tobacco products when bringing up the point. Dr. Murthy also pointed to several other physical health and safety measures, such as regulations around seatbelts and airbags in cars, as well as recalls of food that has been contaminated.

“Why is it that we have 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,” Dr. Murthy wrote.

Although the surgeon general is calling for a warning label on social media, this isn’t Congressional action yet. As Dr. Murthy points out, a warning label needs to be approved by Congress, even if it comes from the surgeon general. Still, this is very much a call on Congress to take action.

This is far from the first run-in that Meta, X (formerly Twitter), TikTok, and other social media companies have had with the U.S. government. In January, executives from major social media platforms testified before Congress about the impact of social media on children. And it’s hard to forget about the TikTok ban, which is currently a pending issue in the United States.

There’s no saying what a surgeon general’s warning for social media could look like, but it’d likely mirror what we see on tobacco products. We don’t often see new warnings, after all.