Surgeon general calls for social media warning labels

Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy in Washington, D.C., June 17, 2022. MUST CREDIT: Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy said Monday, June 17, he will push a requirement for warning labels on social media platforms to combat a mental health emergency among children and teens.

In a New York Times opinion essay, Murthy said he will work with Congress to enact legislation requiring that social media platforms include a surgeon general’s warning to “regularly remind parents and adolescents that social media has not been proved safe.” He cited evidence from tobacco studies showing that warning labels can change behavior.

He said the warning labels should be just one part of a broader set of stepped-up rules to track and limit social media’s effect on consumers – all of which would require the help of Congress.

Murthy said congressional action is also needed to prevent platforms from collecting sensitive data from children, and it should restrict features such as push notifications, autoplay and infinite scroll, which he said contribute to excessive use.

In addition, social media companies should have to share data on health effects with independent researchers and the public and allow independent safety audits of their products, he wrote.

Murthy cited a 2019 study that found the risk of depression and anxiety doubled among adolescents who spent more than three hours a day on social media, as well as statistics showing daily social media use among adolescents averaging 4.8 hours.

He compared his proposal to other examples of the federal government taking action to protect consumers’ health and safety, notably the grounding of Boeing airplanes in January and a recent recall of dairy products due to Listeria contamination. Rules requiring seat belts and air bags are in place because lawmakers acted to protect people from car accidents, he wrote.

“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 asked. “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.”

Media representatives from TikTok and Meta did not immediately respond to requests for comment Monday morning. A media inbox for X, formerly known as Twitter, sent a bounce-back email saying: “Busy now, please check back later.”



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