Surgeon general calls on Congress to require social media warning labels, like those on cigarettes

The U.S. surgeon general has called on Congress to require warning labels on social media platforms, similar to those now required on cigarette boxes.

In an op-ed Monday in the New York Times, Dr. Vivek Murthy said social media is a contributing factor to the mental health crisis among young people.

“It’s time to demand a surgeon general’s warning label on social media platforms stating that social media has been linked to significant harm to adolescent mental health. A surgeon general’s warning label, which requires congressional action, would provide regular reminders to parents and adolescents that social media has not proven to be safe,” Murthy said. “Evidence from tobacco studies shows that warning labels can increase awareness and change behavior.”

Murthy said using only a warning label would not make social media safe for young people, but would be part of the necessary steps.

Last year Murthy warned that there was not enough evidence to prove that social media is safe for children and teenagers. He said at the time that policymakers should address the harms of social media the same way they do things like car seats, baby food, medications and other products used by children.

He said Monday that Congress should implement legislation that protects young people from online harassment, abuse and exploitation and from exposure to extreme violence and sexual content.

“The measures should prevent platforms from collecting sensitive data from children and limit the use of features such as push notifications, autoplay and infinite scrolling, which affect brain development and contribute to overuse,” Murthy wrote.

The surgeon general also recommends that companies be required to share all their health impact data with independent scientists and the public, which they currently do not do, and allow independent safety audits.

Murthy said schools and parents should also help provide phone-free times and doctors, nurses and other clinicians should help families adopt safer practices.