US Surgeon General advocates for tobacco-style warning labels on social media platforms

By CDI Staff |
Vice Admiral Vivek Murthy, Surgeon General of the United States
Vice Admiral Vivek Murthy, Surgeon General of the United States. | United States Department of Health and Human Services

In an opinion article in the New York Times yesterday, June 17, United States Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy has urged immediate action to address the escalating mental health crisis among young people exacerbated by social media. Drawing from his experience in emergency medicine, he emphasized the urgency of the situation: "In an emergency, you don’t have the luxury to wait for perfect information. You assess the available facts, you use your best judgment, and you act quickly."

Recent studies underscore the severity of the issue: adolescents spending over three hours daily on social media face a doubled risk of anxiety and depression. With the average daily usage now at 4.8 hours, and nearly half reporting negative impacts on body image, concerns are mounting. In response, Dr. Murthy said, "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."

Highlighting parallels with successful tobacco warning labels, he pointed to evidence suggesting such labels can increase awareness and alter behaviors. A recent survey of Latino parents showed 76% would consider limiting their children’s social media use in response to a Surgeon General’s warning.

However, Dr. Murthy emphasized that labeling alone is insufficient. He underscored the need for comprehensive legislative measures to shield young people from online hazards: "Legislation should prevent exposure to harmful content and limit data collection from minors." These bipartisan-supported efforts aim to curtail algorithm-driven feeds promoting violence and exploitation, alongside restricting addictive features like push notifications and infinite scrolling.

Moreover, he demanded transparency from social media companies: "Companies must share health impact data with independent scientists and allow safety audits." He cautioned against relying solely on platform assurances, saying, "Americans need proof that these platforms are safe for our kids."

The Surgeon General also called for societal involvement: "Parents, schools, and communities must collaborate to create phone-free environments during critical times like bedtime and meals." He advocated delaying social media access until after middle school and encouraged peer support initiatives like the Log Off movement.

Reflecting on personal encounters with affected families, including Lori, who tragically lost her daughter to suicide due to social media bullying, he acknowledged the profound stakes involved: "There is no assurance for parents like seatbelts or helmets. It's just parents and their children against powerful tech companies."

Urging a decisive societal response similar to past safety measures in transportation and food industries, he asked: "Why have we not responded to social media harms with the same urgency?" and emphasized, "This is not about willpower; it's about ensuring safety in technology."

In conclusion, Dr. Murthy argued that "the moral test of any society is how well it protects its children," and challenged policymakers, industry leaders, and communities: "We have the expertise and tools to make social media safe for our kids. Now is the time to act."