Surgeon general calls for social media warning labels to protect young users

Surgeon general calls for social media warning labels

Dr Vivek Murthy, the US surgeon general, has urged Congress to mandate social media platforms to include warning labels demonstrating the potential effects social media can have on young people's mental health, similar to the warnings placed on tobacco products.

Mental health crisis among young people

In an opinion piece published in The New York Times, Murthy stated that social media is contributing to the mental health crisis amongst young people. He emphasised that a warning label, whilst not a solution on its own, would remind parents and young users that social media has not been proven safe.

Requiring congressional action

Josh Golin, executive director of Fairplay, commented on the proposed warnings and drew parallels between social media and the tobacco industry, stating that both rely on addicting young people. Golin emphasised that congressional action is required to implement the warnings, a process he hopes will be combined with other safety measures and legislation already in place to improve safety and design on social media platforms.

Prevailing use of social media

Statistics from the Pew Research Center show that up to 95% of 13- to 17-year-olds claim to use social media, with over a third stating that they use it constantly. Murthy states that the impact of social media on young people should be an urgent concern and that social media platforms require the same safety measures as other products used by children, such as baby formula, car seats, and medication.

Resistance from the tech industry

It is likely that any congressional legislation would be challenged by the tech industry. Adam Kovacevich, the CEO of Chamber of Progress, a tech industry policy group, stated that putting warnings on online speech contradicts the constitutional right to free speech. He added that it was surprising to see the surgeon general attack social media use when many teens claim it provides an important outlet for social connection.

Industry response to concerns

Social media platforms have attempted to address concerns surrounding the impact of social media on children's mental health. However, many of the measures that have been put in place, such as time restrictions, can easily be circumvented by users. TikTok, for example, has a default 60-minute time limit for users under 18, but users can simply enter a passcode to continue using the app once this limit is reached.

Congressional action

In January 2023, the CEOs of Meta, TikTok, and other social media companies testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee regarding their failure to protect young users. The executives discussed the safety tools and measures they have in place for minors.

Further action

Murthy has stated that Congress also needs to implement legislation to protect young people from online harassment, abuse, and exploitation and from exposure to extreme violence and sexual content. He suggests that platforms should be restricted from collecting sensitive data from children and using features such as push notifications, autoplay, and infinite scroll. Blackburn and Blumenthal have announced their support for the warning labels and emphasise the importance of continuing to draw attention to the harmful effects of social media on children.

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