What the Surgeon General’s Warning Label for Social Media Gets Wrong – Business Insider

US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy is recommending a warning label on social media sites cautioning that “social media is associated with significant mental health harms for adolescents.”

This label would warn teens and their parents of the potential risk of harm from using social media. In an op-ed for The New York Times, Murthy writes, “the mental health crisis among young people is an emergency — and social media has emerged as an important contributor.”

Murthy references the warning label on tobacco products, which is viewed as a public health success story, helping reduce tobacco use significantly since the 1970s.

But is social media really comparable to cigarettes? And could a warning label actually make an impact? Sure, apps like TikTok and Instagram can be addictive and potentially harmful. However, there are a few really basic differences that I think are worth considering.

First of all, unlike social media apps, cigarettes are aimed at adults (yes, it has also been stealthily marketed to teens), and they are only legally sold to adults (yes, obviously teens are getting their hands on them anyway). The warning label is for everyone: cigarettes pose a health risk to anyone who smokes.

Secondly, there’s little hope that tobacco companies will be inspired to make cigarettes healthy — there is no healthy version of an American Spirit. But there is hope that social media could be less harmful. There could be all sorts of tweaks and changes, small and large, that could make social platforms safer for kids. Big Tech platforms could make these changes if spurred by regulation, negative media coverage, advertiser boycotts, or simply because they believe it’s the right thing to do.

Speaking of regulation, the decline in cigarette use over the last 50 years has also been aided by smoking bans in offices, planes, restaurants, bars, and other public places. These bans resulted from a series of state, local, and federal regulations.

So far, the government’s approach to social media regulation has been somewhat chaotic. A few potential bills exist, like the Kids Online Safety Act, Protecting Kids on Social Media Act, and an overhaul of the existing COPPA laws on data privacy and advertising to kids online.

There’s also a bunch of state attorneys general who have filed lawsuits over social media harms to kids, and individual states have crafted their own laws, like a new bill in New York that would ban “addictive” algorithmic feeds for teens. Meta has said it would welcome regulation (meaning regulation that it likes) and has also suggested that it would like the responsibility of age-gating and parental consent to download social apps be shifted over to Apple and Google’s app stores.

Perhaps instead of thinking of social media like cigarettes when it comes to warning labels, there’s another analogy that might help us make more sense of this moment: the parental advisory stickers on music albums with explicit lyrics.

Social media is maybe closer to music than cigarettes, at least in terms of the First Amendment (there’s a far more obvious speech implication than the right to rip heaters in the airport).

In the mid-1980s, a group called the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), which included a handful of influential wives of senators like Tipper Gore, was incensed over songs like Prince’s “Darling Nikki” and Judas Priest’s “Eat Me Alive” and urged record labels to attach warnings to albums containing explicit lyrics. The pressure campaign culminated in a media spectacle when John Denver, Frank Zappa, and Dee Snider of Twisted Sister spoke before Congress to defend their art.

Ultimately, no law was passed — the parental advisory labels you still see on albums today resulted from self regulation by the record industry to avoid actual regulation: a compromise between the Recording Industry Association of America and the PMRC. (This 1999 article from the journal Popular Music is a fun read if you’re interested in dividing deeper into the history of the warning labels).

A surgeon general warning label that pops up when you open Instagram is probably going to be annoying, but it can’t really hurt. So, hey, why not? I’m not going to sit here and say a government effort to help teen mental health is bad. Go for it.

But I am skeptical of how effective it will actually be, and how much political capital might be wasted on this instead of the hard, unfun work of coming up with regulations on social platforms that are actually effective.