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Surgeon General Calls for Social Media Warning Labels for Kids

New recommendations aim to mitigate youth anxiety and depression crisis

Kristin Leong headshot

Published on: June 24, 2024

A large sign warning of the health dangers of smoking
A large sign above the locked tobacco case at the Ballard Fred Meyer warns of the health dangers of smoking. Photo: Kristin Leong

In a bold New York Times op-ed last week focused on safeguarding the mental health of adolescents, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy called for warning labels on social media platforms. For these labels to go into effect, congressional action is required.

As with health warnings on tobacco and alcohol products, these labels would aim to highlight the potential risks that excessive social media use poses to youth.

YouTube leads as social media consumes teens

Social media use is nearly universal among teenagers, with one-third of U.S. youth ages 13–17 reporting that they use a social media platform “almost constantly,” according to 2023 data from the Pew Research Center. YouTube was the social media platform most favored by teens, followed by TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram, then Facebook.

According to Pew’s previous research, the number of teens who are using social media in this “extremely online” way is surging — that third represents roughly double the percentage from a decade ago.

This extensive usage has raised significant concerns about the mental health impact all of this swiping and liking is having on kids.

"Young boy using social media and feeling bad"
Photo: iStock

Evidence shows that mental health risks are significant

The call to action from Dr. Murthy comes amidst increasing evidence linking excessive social media use to adverse mental health outcomes.

One 2019 study of over 6,000 adolescents in the U.S., cited by Dr. Murthy in his op-ed, found that youth who spend more than three hours a day on social media are at higher risk of anxiety, depression and poor body image. According to a Gallup poll last year, also cited by the surgeon general, the average amount of time teens spend on social media every day is 4.8 hours.

In his popular book, “The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood Is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness,” ethics professor, Jonathan Haidt, argues social media platforms amplify social comparison, expose users to cyberbullying and create constant pressure to maintain an idealized digital persona. He points out that the exacerbation of mental health problems that inevitably result from social media are especially concerning for young people during the vulnerable years where they are discovering who they are and who they want to become.

Social media, like cigarettes, depends on addicting kids

In an article about the surgeon general’s call published by the Associated Press, Josh Golin, executive director at Fairplay, an organization dedicated to ending marketing to children, likened the situation to the historical challenge of tobacco addiction.

“Social media today is like tobacco decades ago: It’s a product whose business model depends on addicting kids,” Golin says. He emphasized that a surgeon general’s warning label is a crucial step in mitigating the threat to children.

"Group of kids using social media"
Photo: iStock

Congress must vote to approve social media warning labels

Implementing the social media warning labels that Dr. Murthy is calling for will require congressional action. The timeline for this is uncertain, despite bipartisan interest in child safety online. So far, lawmakers have held multiple hearings on the topic while pushback from tech lobbying groups such as Chamber of Progress and NetChoice has already begun.

The Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, the last federal law aimed at protecting young people online, was passed in 1998. YouTube was launched in 2005.

More ways to manage screen time:

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