U.S. Surgeon General Calls for Warning Labels on Social Media, Citing 'Significant Mental Health Harms for Adolescents'

"Social media has not been proven safe," Dr. Vivek Murthy says, explaining why he recommends a warning label similar to ones that appear on tobacco and alcohol

<p>Slaven Vlasic/Getty; Anna Barclay/Getty </p> U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy in October 2023; stock image of apps

Slaven Vlasic/Getty; Anna Barclay/Getty

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy in October 2023; stock image of apps

The U.S. surgeon general is calling for a warning label similar to those on cigarettes and alcohol, but on social media platforms — which would read that "social media is associated with significant mental health harms for adolescents."

In an essay written by Dr. Vivek Murthy and published by the New York Times on Monday, June 17, the government official called out the "mental health crisis among young people" and requested congressional action to "remind parents and adolescents that social media has not been proved safe."

Writing that a "warning label would not, on its own, make social media safe for young people," Murthy, 46, shared that he believed the "priority" should still be specific measures by "policymakers, platforms and the public" to make platforms safer for kids.

"Legislation from Congress should shield young people from online harassment, abuse and exploitation and from exposure to extreme violence and sexual content that too often appears in algorithm-driven feeds," he wrote.

"The measures should prevent platforms from collecting sensitive data from children and should restrict the use of features like push notifications, autoplay and infinite scroll, which prey on developing brains and contribute to excessive use," he continued.

<p>Anna Moneymaker/Getty</p> U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy in June 2023

Anna Moneymaker/Getty

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy in June 2023

Related: Mark Zuckerburg and Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel Apologize to Parents at Congressional Social Media Hearing

According to the Associated Press, which cited 2022 data from the Pew Research Center, 95% of kids between 13 and 17 say they use social media, with more than a third of them saying they use it “almost constantly."

The AP also reported that platforms have made efforts to ban kids under 13 from signing up and TikTok specifically introduced a time limit for users under 18. However, both restrictions can be bypassed — the second with a password — the newswire noted.

In his op-ed, the Surgeon General called for social media platforms to "share all of their data on health effects with independent scientists and the public" and "allow independent safety audits." He added that Americans "need more than words" to see that products are being made "safer."

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Meta, TikTok and X CEOs previously testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee about the effects of social media on young people and efforts they had been making. Officials said at the time that there was "pretty clearly a bipartisan consensus that the status quo isn’t working," the AP reported.

At the time, Meta and Snapchat CEOs Mark Zuckerberg and Evan Spiegel apologized to parents in attendance, with Zuckerberg in particular sharing that "no one should have to go through the things that your families have suffered."

“This is why we have invested so much and we are going to continue doing industry-wide efforts to make sure no one has to go through the things your families have had to suffer,” he said, per the AP.

As CNN noted, several politicians have worked on or considered legislation to address social media usage among young people, with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signing a bill that would prohibit kids under 14 from accessing social media accounts and New York Gov. Kathy Hochul sharing she would sign legislation that would ban algorithms being used in children's feeds and prevent tech companies from sharing information of minors.

Elsewhere in his Times essay, Murthy called for schools to offer "phone-free experiences," parents to push "phone-free zones around bedtime, meals and social gatherings," parents to wait longer to give their children social media access, public health leaders to "demand healthy digital environments for young people" and medical professionals to "raise the issue of social media with kids."

Related: Social Media Can Be a ‘Profound Risk’ to Youth, Surgeon General Warns

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He also urged the Kids Online Health & Safety Task Force to bring "together the best minds from inside and outside government to recommend changes that will make social media safer for our children."

"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," he wrote. "There are just parents and their children, trying to figure it out on their own, pitted against some of the best product engineers and most well-resourced companies in the world."

"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," Murthy later concluded. "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."

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