Surgeon General wants tobacco-style warning labels on social media platforms

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has said that he believes age 13 is too young to be on social media.
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Posted at 8:36 AM, Jun 17, 2024

Surgeon General Vivek Murthy reiterated his concerns about the effects social media has on young people and said he wants to see warning labels akin to those used for tobacco products.

In an op-ed published Monday in The New York Times, Murthy called on Congress to pass legislation that would "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."

"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 said. "Evidence from tobacco studies show that warning labels can increase awareness and change behavior. When asked if a warning from the surgeon general would prompt them to limit or monitor their children’s social media use, 76 percent of people in one recent survey of Latino parents said yes."

Murthy added that warning labels themselves wouldn't make social media safer.

"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?" he 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."

TikTok has not responded to Scripps News' request for comment. X does not respond to press inquiries. Meta, the parent company of Facebook and Instagram, said it declined to comment.

Murthy's past criticism of social media

Even though 13-year-olds can sign up for accounts, whether they should is a different question. In 2023, Murthy said that he believes age 13 is too young to be on social media.

"What we found were two critical things. One is that there is not enough evidence to reassure us that social media use is in fact sufficiently safe for kids," Murthy told Scripps News last year. "The second thing that we found is that there's growing evidence that social media use is associated with harms for some of our kids."

Last year, Murthy published data showing that 40% of children ages 8-12 were on social media despite most platforms requiring kids to be age 13.

The U.S. Surgeon General's report found that teens who use social media for at least three hours a day have double the risk of poor mental health.

"It worried me when I saw the data say that a third of adolescents say they are staying up until midnight or later on weekdays on their phones, and much of that screen time is social media use. So, the bottom line is that we want kids to benefit from and use technology, but we need to minimize the harms," Murthy previously told Scripps News. "Which is why I'm pushing for policymakers and tech companies to act quickly."

Teachers join push for changes

The American Federation of Teachers has also raised concerns about social media's effects on students. In July 2023, the American Federation of Teachers noted dangerous social media trends like "slap a teacher" and swatting pranks, which also come at a cost to schools.

The federation issued the following recommendations to social media platforms:

  • Prioritize safety for children
  • Protect students from overuse and addictive-like behavior
  • Protect students’ privacy
  • Protect students from risky algorithms
  • Directly engage and work with schools and families