US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy is urging Congress to introduce warning labels for social media platforms that regularly warn parents and adolescent users about the potential mental health harms associated with using them. The proposed warning labels, similar to those already introduced for tobacco and alcohol products, would aim to increase awareness and encourage social media users to change their behavior.

“The mental health crisis among young people is an emergency — and social media has emerged as an important contributor,” Murthy said in a guest essay published by The New York Times. The surgeon general cited studies that found almost half of adolescents say social media gives them body image issues and that those who spend over three hours a day on it are twice as likely to face symptoms of anxiety and depression.

The question of whether social media usage is connected to the mental health crisis facing minors in the US is hotly debated. Multiple other studies and reports suggest this is likely — and that companies like Meta have long been aware of the reported dangers — but some experts (and tech CEOs) believe the link between social media use and depressive symptoms in adolescents is lacking evidence and “might be exaggerated.”

For Murthy, the question isn’t up for debate. He issued an advisory in May 2023 that, while acknowledging the subject wasn’t fully understood, warned that social media poses a “profound risk of harm to the mental health and well-being of children and adolescents.” At the time, the advisory encouraged minors, parents, and policymakers to take immediate steps to mitigate the risks — such as modeling responsible social media behavior and enabling more research into its health impacts — but now, Murthy is calling for more urgent action to be taken.

“One of the most important lessons I learned in medical school was that in an emergency, you don’t have the luxury to wait for perfect information.”

“One of the most important lessons I learned in medical school was that in an emergency, you don’t have the luxury to wait for perfect information,” he said in the Times guest essay. “You assess the available facts, you use your best judgment, and you act quickly.” 

In addition to warning labels, Murthy is calling for legislation that shields young people from online harassment, abuse, exploitation, and exposure to extreme violence and sexual content in social media algorithms. Murthy proposed these protections alongside others that recommend banning platforms from collecting children’s data and restricting features like push notifications, autoplay, and infinite scroll, which he says “prey on developing brains and contribute to excessive use.” 

Murthy also wants to force social media companies to allow independent safety audits and share the data they have regarding health effects with independent scientists and the public. “While the platforms claim they are making their products safer, Americans need more than words,” said Murthy. “We need proof.” Given there’s currently no regulatory movement for this within the Senate or House of Representatives — and that Murthy’s proposals will require congressional approval — said Americans may be waiting for some time.

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