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US Surgeon General: Seeks Tobacco-Like Warning Label for Social Media

Social Media contributing factor in mental health crisis

USA: Dr. Vivek Murthy, U.S. Surgeon General has called on Congress to put warning labels on social media platforms and their effects on young people’s lives, similar to those now mandatory on cigarette boxes. Speaking to “The New York Times”, Dr. Vivek Murthy said that social media is a contributing factor in the mental health crisis among young people. “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. A surgeon general’s warning label, which requires congressional action, would regularly remind parents and adolescents that social media has not been proved safe,” Murthy said. “Evidence from tobacco studies show that warning labels can increase awareness and change behaviour.” Murthy said that the use of just a warning label wouldn’t make social media safe for young people, but would be a part of the steps needed.

Social media use is prevalent among young people, with up to 95% of youth ages 13 to 17 saying that they use a social media platform, and more than a third saying that they use social media “almost constantly,” according to 2022 data from the Pew Research Center. “Social media today is like tobacco decades ago: It’s a product whose business model depends on addicting kids. And as with cigarettes, a surgeon general’s warning label is a critical step toward mitigating the threat to children,” Josh Golin, executive director at Fairplay, an organization that is dedicated to ending marketing to children, said in a statement.

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Actually getting the labels on social media platforms would take congressional action — and it’s not clear how quickly that might happen, even with apparent bipartisan unity around child safety online. Lawmakers have held multiple congressional hearings on child online safety and there’s legislation in the works. Still, the last federal law aimed at protecting children online was enacted in 1998, six years before Facebook’s founding. “I am hoping that would be combined with a lot of other work that Congress has been trying to do to improve the safety and design and privacy of social media products,” said Dr. Jenny Radesky, a developmental behavioural paediatrician at the University of Michigan and leader at the American Academy of Paediatrics. “Those two things would have to go hand in hand, because there’s so much that Congress can do to follow the steps of the United Kingdom and the European Union in passing laws that take into account what kids need when they’re interacting with digital products.” Even with Congressional approval, warning labels would likely be challenged in the courts by tech companies.