Surgeon General calls for warning labels on social media platforms

U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy announced Monday that he would push for a warning label on social media platforms to warn parents that use of the platforms could harm teenagers' mental health.

Warning labels – like those that appear on tobacco and alcohol products – are one of the most powerful tools available to the nation's top health officials, but Dr. Murthy cannot require them unilaterally; the action requires congressional approval.

The proposal builds on several years of mounting warnings from the surgeon general. In a May 2023 advisory, he recommended that parents immediately set limits on phone use and urged Congress to quickly develop health and safety standards for technology platforms.

He also called on tech companies to make changes: to share internal data on the health impacts of their products; allow independent security audits; and limit features like push notifications, autoplay, and infinite scrolling, which he says “prey on brain development and contribute to overuse.”

In an interview, Dr Murthy said he had been deeply frustrated by the platforms' reluctance to do so.

“I don't think we can just hope that the platforms will solve this problem on their own,” he said. “They had 20 years.”

He said he is “pretty optimistic” that lawmakers will introduce a bill requiring a warning label, which he said will regularly appear on screens when people use social media sites.

The push for a warning label sparks a battle between the Biden administration and the tech industry, which has sued several states over social media laws.

Tech companies are likely to argue that the science on the harmful effects of social media is still unclear. They will also invoke free speech law, arguing that the government cannot force companies to carry a warning on the product, which is sometimes described as “forced speech.”

“From a legal perspective, this is no different than a surgeon general in the Trump administration declaring that a warning label is needed in mainstream media because he believes it is fake news,” said Adam Kovacevich, the chamber's chief executive officer. del Progresso, a technology lobbying firm. “It is the same abuse of government power as violating free speech.”

This challenge may be heard in U.S. courtrooms, with a cohort of judges showing less deference to public health rules than their predecessors, said Claudia E. Haupt, a professor of law and political science at Northeastern University School of Law .

For more than a decade, cigarette companies have successfully used the First Amendment argument to reject the requirement to print a graphic photograph of diseased lungs on tobacco products, he said.

TikTok did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the surgeon general's proposal. Spokespeople for YouTube and X declined to comment.

The surgeon general's call to action received support from two senators, Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, and Marsha Blackburn, Republican of Tennessee, the authors of the Kids Online Safety Act, which would require platforms to take a series of measures to protect minors on the Internet. social media but does not include warning labels.

“We are pleased that the Surgeon General, America's top doctor, continues to call attention to the harmful impact social media has on our children,” the two senators said in a joint statement.

Past warning labels have had significant effects on behavior. In 1965, after a landmark report by the surgeon general, Congress voted to require that all cigarette packages distributed in the United States carry a warning that use of the product “may be hazardous to your health.”

Thus began a 50-year decline in smoking. When the warning labels first appeared, about 42 percent of U.S. adults were daily cigarette smokers; by 2021, that share had fallen to 11.5%.

There is heated debate among researchers over whether social media is behind the child and adolescent mental health crisis. In his new book, “The Anxious Generation,” social psychologist Jonathan Haidt points to the rise of smartphones in the late 1950s as a turning point that led to a sharp increase in suicidal behavior and reports of hopelessness.

Other experts say that although the rise of social media has coincided with the decline of well-being, there is no evidence that one has caused the other, and instead point to factors such as economic hardship, social isolation, racism, school shootings and the opioid crisis. .

In an essay published Monday in the opinion section of the New York Times, Dr. Murthy highlighted research showing that teens who spend more than three hours a day on social media are at significantly higher risk of mental health problems and that the 46% of teens said social media made them feel worse about their bodies.

According to a Gallup poll of more than 1,500 teens released last fall, U.S. teens spend an average of 4.8 hours a day on social media platforms like YouTube, TikTok and Instagram.

In an interview last month, Dr Murthy said he had repeatedly heard from young people who “can't get off the platforms”, often finding that hours had passed despite their intention to simply check their feeds.

“Platforms are designed to maximize the time we all spend on them,” he said. “It's one thing to do that to an adult, but it's another thing to do that to a child, whose impulse control is still developing, whose brain is in a sensitive stage of development.”

Dr. Murthy has long indicated that he considers social media a health risk. In his May 2023 advisory on the topic, he warned that “there are ample indicators that social media may also pose a profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents.”

At the time, however, he warned that the effects of social media were not fully understood. Research suggests that platforms offer both risks and benefits, providing community to young people who might otherwise feel marginalized.

On Monday it said it had concluded that “the balance of risk and harm does not justify the use of social media for adolescents.”

“We've put young people in a position where, to get some benefits,” such as bonding with friends, “we tell them they have to endure significant harm,” he said. She added: “We now have enough information to take action to make platforms safer.”

Dr. Murthy has consistently raised his tone of urgency on the dangers of social media, comparing the current moment to epochal battles in public health history.

“One of the most important lessons I learned in medical school was that in an emergency you don't have the luxury of waiting for perfect information,” he wrote in his essay Monday. “You evaluate the available facts, use your best judgment and act quickly.”

Sapna Maheshwari, Nico Grant AND Maya C. Miller contributed to the reporting.

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