Surgeon general calls for health warnings on social media for younger users

Networks carry risk of "mental health harms for adolescents,” Vivek Murthy said.

June 17, 2024, 2:21 PM

The U.S. surgeon general called on Monday for social media platforms to include health warnings for younger users.

"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. You assess the available facts, you use your best judgment, and you act quickly," Vivek H. Murthy wrote in an op-ed published in The New York Times "The mental health crisis among young people is an emergency -- and social media has emerged as an important contributor."

“It is time to require a surgeon general’s warning label on social media platforms, stating that social media is associated with significant mental health harms for adolescents,” he wrote, calling on Congress to take action to require such a label.

Murthy cited the success of surgeon general's warning labels on cigarette packs -- which Congress mandated in the 1960s -- as an example of what the action could do for social media use among kids.

"Evidence from tobacco studies show that warning labels can increase awareness and change behavior," he wrote, while also citing in the op-ed examples of other industries where Congress has required safety measures, including seatbelts, airbags, crash testing and food recalls.

"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?" wrote Murthy, a father of two. "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."

This picture taken on Jan. 12, 2023, in Toulouse, southwestern France shows a smartphone and a computer screen displaying the logos of Instagram app and its parent company Meta.
Lionel Bonaventure/AFP via Getty Images, FILE

Murthy's office had last year issued an advisory on social media use and its possible affects on teenage users. He called at that time on social media companies to prioritize safety and privacy in their product designs and ensure minimum age requirements are enforced.

In his op-ed, Murthy noted that requiring a surgeon's general warning on social media platforms is just one of many protective factors needed to help better protect kids. He called on Congress to enact legislation to "shield young people" from exploitation and abuse online, and called on social media companies to share data on the "public health effects" of their products and to allow for independent safety audits.

Murthy said that society as a whole also has a role to play.

"Schools should ensure that classroom learning and social time are phone-free experiences," he wrote. "Parents, too, should create phone-free zones around bedtime, meals and social gatherings to safeguard their kids’ sleep and real-life connections -- both of which have direct effects on mental health. And they should wait until after middle school to allow their kids access to social media. his is much easier said than done, which is why parents should work together with other families to establish shared rules, so no parents have to struggle alone or feel guilty when their teens say they are the only one who has to endure limits."

Following the surgeon general's call for a warning label for social media, a White House spokesperson underscored the administration's support of tackling the mental health crisis in the U.S., calling on Congress to "hold social media platforms accountable."

"The Surgeon General’s announcement is about reminding parents and kids of the risks of using social media. The President will continue to focus on addressing the mental health crisis and calls on Congress to hold social media platforms accountable," the official said, not explicitly endorsing the label proposal but expressing support for board action on the issue.

Most social media platforms have a minimum user age of 13, which Murthy has said previously he believes is "too early" for kids to be on social media, describing the age as a "time when kids are developing their identity, their sense of self."

Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., who have been working to advance the Kids Online Safety Act for over a year, said they were "pleased" by the surgeon general's call for a warning label on social media.

"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," the senators said in a statement.

The Kids Online Safety Act has 62 co-sponsors in the Senate, making it all but certain to clear the 60-vote threshold necessary to pass legislation through the upper chamber. Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has expressed support for the legislation but so far has not brought it to the floor for a vote.

Dr. Vivek Murthy appears on "Good Morning America."
ABC News

On average, teens report using social media for 3.5 hours a day, with many spending more than seven hours a day on these platforms, according to the advisory Murthy issued last year.

One study, published in the medical journal JAMA Psychiatry, found that kids ages 12 to 15 who spend more than three hours per day on social media had double the rate of mental health issues like depression and anxiety.

Other studies also suggest that for young people who are already experiencing depression, reducing the number of hours spent on social media can help ease depression scores

Psychologists say that adolescent brain development starts around age 10 and continues through early adulthood.

In issuing first-of-its-kind guidance for social media and teenagers last year, the American Psychological Association cautioned that sites that use "like" buttons and artificial intelligence to encourage excessive scrolling "may be dangerous for developing brains" and recommends limiting social media use on these types of platforms through phone settings.

In addition to setting limits, the APA strongly encouraged in its recommendations ongoing discussions about social media use and active supervision, especially in early adolescence. Parents are encouraged to model healthy social media use, including taking social media "holidays" as a family.

Children should also be monitored for problematic social media use, including interference with normal routines, choosing social media over in-person interactions, lack of physical activity, strong cravings to check social media and lying to spend more time online. In these cases, a mental health provider might be able to help, according to the APA.

ABC News' Ahmad Hemingway, Sony Salzman, Dr. Amanda Kravitz, Dr. Mariam Gomaa and Allie Pecorin contributed to this report.

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