Surgeon General calls for warning labels on social media platforms

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy urges Congress to mandate warning labels on social media, citing mental health risks for young users - Photo by Adem Ay on UnSplash

He says evidence is growing that these platforms are a mental health threat

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy says social media platforms should carry a warning, much like the warnings that appear on tobacco products.

In an op-ed in the New York Times, Murthy said there is growing evidence that exposure to social media can be a mental health risk, particularly for young people. He said he will ask Congress to approve such a label, saying it would be a strong reminder to parents and children that social media platforms have not been proven safe.

“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,” Murthy 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.”

Murthy said he reached the conclusion that social media can pose a threat to vulnerable users after meetings with groups of young people. He said when he asked them about social media, they said it helped them stay in touch with old friends, but many admitted they “don’t feel good” when they are on these platforms. Murthy says social media platforms must address this issue.

“Additionally, companies must be required to share all of their data on health effects with independent scientists and the public — currently they do not — and allow independent safety audits,” he said. “While the platforms claim they are making their products safer, Americans need more than words. We need proof.”

Impact on mental health

Several studies in the last five years have explored how social media can affect people’s mental and emotional well-being -- especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. In a 2020 study, researchers from the University of British Columbia Okanagan explored the specific things about these platforms that can affect consumers’ happiness. 

According to their findings, endless scrolling can lead to negative emotions. When users see posts or pictures that their friends and family are sharing on social media, this often leads to comparison to their own lives, which can increase negative feelings. 

“Social media is designed to maximize profit by increasing engagement,” said Kris Perry, executive director, Children and Screens: Institute of Digital Media and Child Development. “For teens, this poses a unique risk for addictive or problematic use. Social media can also expose youth to harmful content. It can be a source of increased conflict and stress, with both family and peers.”

In an early 2024 survey, the Pew Research Center found adults under 30 are far more likely than their older counterparts to use many of the social media platforms. These findings suggest that younger Americans may be more vulnerable to social media’s harmful effect.

Age gaps are especially large for Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok – platforms that are used by majorities of adults under 30. For example, 78% of 18- to 29-year-olds say they use Instagram, far higher than the share among those 65 and older. Sixty-five percent of adults under 30 report using Snapchat, compared with just 4% of the oldest age cohort.

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