Surgeon General Calls for Social Media Warning Labels

Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post
Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy pointed to evidence that adolescents who spend significant time on social media are at higher risk of anxiety and depression.

U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy called Monday for placing tobacco-style warning labels on social media to alert users that the platforms can harm children’s mental health, escalating his warnings about the effects of online services such as Facebook, Instagram and TikTok.

Murthy, writing in a New York Times opinion essay, urged 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 that adolescents who spend significant time on social media are at greater risk of experiencing anxiety and depression and that many young people say the platforms have worsened their body image. Murthy said warning labels, like those on tobacco and alcohol products, have been shown to change people’s behaviors.

The surgeon general’s call to action comes as regulators and legislators increasingly scrutinize links between social media use and children’s mental health, ushering in a wave of proposals to expand protections for children on the internet. Lawmakers have likened tech’s impact on youths to that of Big Tobacco and urged swift action to counteract what they call a driving force in the youth mental health crisis.

Yet despite the bipartisan outcry, there is still significant debate within the scientific community about the extent to which social media use may be causing mental health issues among children and teens. Researchers and public officials have pushed to increase federal funding to study the topic, and they have criticized tech companies for not making more internal data on the matter available to the public.

But Murthy and other public officials argue there is enough evidence to suggest social media can be unsafe, regardless of gaps in research.

“One of the most important lessons I learned in medical school was that in an emergency, you don’t have the luxury to wait for perfect information,” he wrote Monday. Murthy said the label would state that “social media is associated with significant mental health harms for adolescents.”

More than a dozen states have passed laws aimed at expanding guardrails around children’s use of social media, with some banning young children from accessing the sites altogether and requiring parent approval for teens to use them. Others have been modeled after landmark regulations in the United Kingdom requiring that tech companies consider the “best interests of the child first” when developing products.

State laws have been challenged by tech industry groups, which argue that they are unconstitutional and violate users’ free speech rights. Several have since been halted by the courts.

On Capitol Hill, lawmakers are trying to advance a package of bills to require social platforms to vet whether their products pose harms to children and expand existing federal protections governing children’s online data. But the bills have yet to pass either chamber of Congress, and lawmakers face dwindling time to act ahead of the 2024 elections.

“We are pleased that the Surgeon General – America’s top doctor – continues to bring attention to the harmful impact that social media has on our children,” Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), two of the lawmakers leading children’s online safety bills in Congress, said in a joint statement Monday.

While Murthy would need an act of Congress to implement the labels, his remarks could galvanize attempts by government officials efforts to warn the public about social media’s risks. In January, New York Mayor Eric Adams (D) cited Murthy’s comments on the issue in designating social media a public health hazard.

Murthy last May released a public health advisory saying that while more research was “needed to fully understand the impact of social media,” there are “ample indicators” that it can pose a “profound risk of harm” to children and teens.

Although congressional action has languished in Washington, the European Union, Britain and other governments have stepped up oversight of children’s online safety, including with the passage of the E.U.’s watershed Digital Services Act. The rules set new limits on companies targeting ads and recommending harmful content to children, in addition to broader regulations on how they police their platforms.

Carl Szabo, vice president and general counsel of the tech trade association NetChoice, said Monday in an emailed statement that Murthy’s proposal “oversimplifies this issue” by not recognizing that “every child is different and struggles with their own challenges.”

“Parents and guardians are the most appropriately situated to handle these unique needs of their children – not the government or tech companies,” said Szabo, whose group counts Meta, Google and Amazon as members. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

NetChoice is leading lawsuits aimed at halting several children’s online safety laws at the state level.

Shoshana Weissmann, digital director and fellow at the R Street Institute think thank, called Murthy’s proposal “concerning” and argued that U.S. surgeons general have previously spoken out prematurely about the dangers of new technology before the science was fully developed, including around video games.

“That does not in itself mean that the surgeon general is wrong, just that the office has regularly raised alarms that ended up being incorrect,” Weissman said in an emailed statement.

Murthy 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 that 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.

Some children’s online safety advocates argued that more significant privacy and consumer protection rules are needed to grapple with social media’s impact on children.

“Warning labels are illusory safeguard without serious reforms,” Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy advocacy group, said in a social media post Monday.

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. He said statistics show 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.”

Murthy, who has grown increasingly vocal on the issue, is part of a multiagency task force set up by the Biden administration to develop recommendations for how social media companies can better protect kids. The group is set to release them this spring.