Vivek Murthy

US Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, the country’s top health official, wants warning labels on social media similar to those on tobacco products.

He wants labels warning against social media’s harmful effects, especially on the young.

“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,” Murthy wrote in a New York Times op-ed published on Monday (June 17).

The US Congress will have to pass legislation requiring such a warning label.

Social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Snapchat are accused of harming youngsters by shortening attention spans, lowering self-image, causing depression and anxiety, and making them vulnerable to bullies and predators.

New legislation

Lawmakers have begun acting on concerns about social media.

US senators questioned the CEOs of Meta Platforms (owners of Facebook and Instagram),  TikTok, Snap,  X and the messaging app Discord  in January during a hearing about online child safety.

New York state lawmakers this month passed legislation barring social media platforms from exposing “addictive” content to anyone under 18 without parental consent.

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a bill in March banning children under 14 from social media platforms and requiring 14- and 15-year-olds to get parental consent.

Similar concern about the harmful effects of tobacco led to legislation, too.

Cigarette packets began to carry warnings in the US in 1966 after then-Surgeon General Luther L Terry published a report linking tobacco to lung cancer.

Other countries followed suit.

Why warning labels?

Murthy says the labels increased awareness of the risks of smoking.

He believes a similar warning against social media will make parents more mindful of their children’s safety online.

Muthy is concerned not just about social media but also about phones and their effect on childen.

In his New York Times article, he wrote that children should not be allowed to use phones in classrooms, during meals, or at bedtime. Parents should safeguard their children’s sleep and real-life connections as these have a direct effect on their mental health, he added.

Murthy’s call for warning labels follows a public health advisory he published in 2023 linking teenage social media use and poor mental health.

But he accepts that there is no academic consensus on the issue.

However, he said, “In an emergency, you don’t have the luxury to wait for perfect information.”

Opinion is divided on the impact of social media on young people.

Some researchers say heavy social media use affects teenagers’ mental health.

But a 2023 study found no evidence linking the global spread of Facebook and widespread psychological harm. On the contrary, some children are reported to benefit from interacting online with friends they already know offline.

The American Psychological Association says social media is “not inherently beneficial or harmful”. Nevertheless, it said “most” under-14s should be monitored while using social media.

BBC, Reuters

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