Surgeon general wants tobacco-style warning applied to social media platforms

Surgeon general wants tobacco-style warning applied to social media platforms


U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy on Monday called on Congress to require a tobacco-style warning for visitors to social media platforms.

In an op-ed published in The New York Times, Murthy said the mental health crisis among young people is an urgent problem, with social media “an important contributor.”

He said his vision of the warning includes language that would alert users to the potential mental health harms of the websites and apps.

“A surgeon general’s warning label, which requires congressional action, would regularly remind parents and adolescents that social media has not been proved safe,” he wrote.

Tune in to “TODAY” at 7 a.m. ET/6 a.m. CT Monday for an exclusive interview with Murthy.

In 1965, after the previous year’s landmark report from Surgeon General Luther L. Terry that linked cigarette smoking to lung cancer and heart disease, Congress mandated unprecedented warning labels on packs of cigarettes, the first of which stated, “Caution: Cigarette Smoking May Be Hazardous to Your Health.”

Murthy said in the op-ed, “Evidence from tobacco labels shows that surgeon general’s warnings can increase awareness and change behavior.” But he acknowledged the limitations and said a label alone wouldn’t make social media safe.

Steps can be taken by Congress, social media companies, parents and others to mitigate the risks, ensure a safer experience online and protect children from possible harm, he wrote.

In the op-ed, Murthy linked the amount of time spent on social media to the increasing risk that children will experience symptoms of anxiety and depression.

The American Psychological Association says teenagers spend nearly five hours every day on top platforms such as YouTube, TikTok and Instagram. In a 2019 study, the association found the proportion of young adults with suicidal thoughts or other suicide-related outcomes increased 47% from 2008 to 2017, when social media use among that age group soared.

And that was before the pandemic triggered a year’s worth of virtual isolation for the U.S. In early 2021, amid continued pandemic lockdowns, Murthy called on social media platforms to “proactively enhance and contribute to the mental health and well-being of our children.”

In January, at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing about social media’s impact on young people, Meta CEO Mark Zuckerberg apologized to parents who said the Meta platform Instagram contributed to their children’s suicides or exploitation.

“I’m sorry for everything you’ve all gone through,” he said. “It’s terrible. No one should have to go through the things that your families have suffered.”

A surgeon general’s public health advisory on social media’s mental health published last year cited research finding that among its potential harms are exposure to violent and sexual content and to bullying, harassment and body shaming.

Murthy also focused in the 2023 advisory on what social media doesn’t seem to do: It doesn’t always enhance mental health through the proven method of face-to-face interaction.

“For too many children, social media use is compromising their sleep and valuable in-person time with family and friends,” he said in a statement last year announcing the health advisory.

At a conference about the youth mental health crisis last month, Murthy said, “It’s no longer the culture for people to talk to each other anymore.”

He has been careful to note that research on the matter isn’t conclusive, with much of it finding correlations between time spent on social media and negative mental health effects but without establishing cause and effect.

“More research is needed to fully understand the impact of social media,” he said in the advisory last year.

And he has acknowledged that social media can help teenagers find community, connection and a place for self-expression.

The companies behind the world’s most popular social media platforms had yet to respond to the op-ed Monday.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call or text 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline or chat live at 988lifeline.org. You can also visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional support.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, visit The National Eating Disorders Association’s website. 


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