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

17 June 2024

By Dennis Romero, NBC News

In an op-ed in The New York Times, Dr. Vivek Murthy said immediate action is needed to protect young people from the potential mental health harms of social media.

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.

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.”