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Surgeon General calls for health warnings on social media platforms

Surgeon General Vice Admiral Vivek Murthy has called for warning labels, similar to those placed on cigarettes, for social media.

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy has called for mandatory health warnings on social media platforms to alert younger users to the potential mental health risks associated with their use. In an op-ed published in The New York Times, Murthy emphasized the urgent need to address the mental health crisis among adolescents, highlighting social media as a significant contributing factor.

“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. He cited alarming statistics, noting that adolescents who spend more than three hours a day on social media face double the risk of anxiety and depression symptoms. At the last observation, the average daily use for this age group was 4.8 hours, with nearly half reporting that social media negatively impacts their body image.

Murthy’s office had previously issued an advisory on social media use and its effects on teenage users, urging social media companies to prioritize safety and privacy in their product designs and enforce minimum age requirements. In his op-ed, Murthy reiterated these points and called for a broader societal effort to protect young people.

“To date, the burden of protecting youth has fallen predominantly on children, adolescents, and their families,” Murthy stated. “The entire burden of mitigating the risk of harm of social media cannot be placed on the shoulders of children and parents.”

Murthy argued that a surgeon general’s warning label, which would require congressional action, could raise awareness and prompt behavioral changes. “Evidence from tobacco studies shows that warning labels can increase awareness and change behavior,” he said. A recent survey indicated that many parents would limit or monitor their children’s social media use if a warning from the surgeon general was issued.

However, Murthy acknowledged that a warning label alone would not make social media safe for young people. In his 2023 advisory, he called for comprehensive research to understand the extent of mental health impacts on young people, identify harmful content, and explore societal factors that could protect youth.

Murthy also highlighted the need for collective action beyond individual families. He suggested schools ensure classroom learning and social time are phone-free experiences and advised parents to create phone-free zones around bedtime, meals, and social gatherings. He recommended that parents wait until after middle school to allow their children access to social media and encouraged collaboration among parents to establish shared rules.

“Public health leaders should demand healthy digital environments for young people,” Murthy said. “Doctors, nurses, and other clinicians should raise the issue of social media with kids and parents and guide them toward safer practices.” He also urged the federal Kids Online Health & Safety Task Force to continue its leadership in recommending changes to make social media safer for children.

Murthy shared the story of Lori, a mother from Colorado, whose teenage daughter took her life after being bullied on social media. Despite Lori’s diligent monitoring of her daughter’s accounts and phone, harm still found its way to her child. This tragic example underscores the limitations of current protective measures and the need for systemic change.

“The moral test of any society is how well it protects its children,” Murthy said. “Mothers like Lori do not want to be told that change takes time, that the issue is too complicated, or that the status quo is too hard to alter. We have the expertise, resources, and tools to make social media safe for our kids. Now is the time to summon the will to act. Our children’s well-being is at stake.”

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