Surgeon General calls for warning label on social media platforms

The U.S. Surgeon General called for social media companies to be required to use safety warning labels in a New York Times opinion essay published Monday.

Citing research that shows social media could be negatively impacting youth mental health, Dr. Vivek H. Murthy said a surgeon general’s warning on social media platforms, similar to those on tobacco and alcohol products, could raise awareness for parents about the potential harm of the platforms.

“One of the worst things for a parent is to know your children are in danger yet be unable to do anything about it,” Murthy wrote. “That is how parents tell me they feel when it comes to social media — helpless and alone in the face of toxic content and hidden harms.”

NetChoice, a trade organization representing some social media companies, said in a statement shared with USA TODAY that the responsibility should be on the parents to protect their children’s mental health, not the government or tech companies.

Murthy said social media is a major factor in the mental health crisis among young people, which he called “an emergency.”

Social media has become nearly ubiquitous among youth. The 2023 U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory on Social Media and Youth Mental Health found that nearly 95% of youth aged 13 to 17 use a social media platform, with more than a third saying they use it “almost constantly.”

The advisory concluded that more research is needed to fully understand the impacts of social media. But it showed there are some benefits and “ample indicators that social media can also have a profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents.”

Potential benefits identified in the advisory were community, connection and self expression. It also stated that social media can support mental health of LGBTQ youth to help develop their identities. Additionally, seven out of 10 girls of color reported encountering identity-affirming content related to race on social media, the advisory stated.

Potential harms of using social media included greater risk of suffering from depression and anxiety. Some studies also showed greater risk of negative health outcomes for adolescents girls including disordered eating and poor sleep.

In the NYT letter, Murthy pointed to the F.A.A.’s swift grounding of Boeing 737 MAX 9 planes after a door plug came off mid-flight earlier this year and widespread recalls of cheese products due to risk of listeria contamination.

“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 wrote. “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.”

Several state bills seeking to limit youth access to social media have been passed by legislatures but blocked in court. Those lawsuits were often brought by NetChoice.

NetChoice vice president and general counsel Carl Szabo said in a statement that the onus is on parents to protect their children from harm online.

“A warning label oversimplifies this issue, and it is a simplistic way to approach this that assumes that every child is the exact same. In reality, every child is different and struggles with their own challenges,” Szabo said. “Parents and guardians are the most appropriately situated to handle these unique needs of their children—not the government or tech companies.”