Should social media come with a tobacco-like warning label? Here's why the US surgeon general thinks so.

Posted at 4:13 PM, Jun 17, 2024

RICHMOND, Va. -- The Surgeon General is calling on Congress to approve warning labels on social media aimed at young people about the potential dangerous mental health effects, similar to how warning labels are placed on alcohol and tobacco products.

In an op-ed published Monday in The New York Times, Murthy called on Congress to pass legislation that would "shield young people from online harassment, abuse, and exploitation and from exposure to extreme violence and sexual content that too often appears in algorithm-driven feeds."

"When I first read the article, I was impressed by the fact that this issue is receiving such attention," said Nick Macrini, Executive Director of the National Alliance on Mental Health (NAMI) - Virginia of the request. "A warning like the Surgeon General's warning that's being proposed is a step in that right direction."

"It's undeniable, the increasing concern that we see from young people, from parents of young people regarding overuse of social media and the impacts that can have on mental wellness, mental illness," he added. "The increased likelihood of experiencing anxiety, depression. Comparing yourself to others, not necessarily knowing when to draw the line, or when to sort of turn off those devices and have some away-from screen time."

Dr. Vivek Murthy cited studies that showed warning labels on tobacco products can change behavior and that mental health risks doubled among teens who use social media over three hours a day.

"It is clear to me that we need to do more to make social media platforms safer for our children. We need to have safety standards similar to what we have for cars, medications, and other products our kids use," wrote Murthy.

The warning labels are just one of several steps Murthy called for, including addressing autoplay, infinite scrolling, and data collection -- but all require action from Congress.

"I think this is an issue that's been years in the making," said Virginia Tech Communications Professor Dr. Cayce Myers. "The question is, is that a lot of this is based on an assumption, not necessarily data that shows causation, but maybe a correlation between social media use and psychological effects. But one of the things that they're saying is that we want to get out front of this. We don't necessarily want to wait for more proof, we sort of have anecdotal proof and, and some scientific proof that there's some bad effects from overuse of social media, particularly on younger people."

Myers what Congress does with this request remains to be seen, but if action is taken it would not be as fast as with the forced sale of TikTok and expects pushback from social media companies.

"Any industry that's going to receive a warning label typically does not want to have that because that impedes their ability to kind of promote their products," he said. "The other thing is that Congress is divided. And, as we know, that's harder to get legislation through. I also would think, though, that there is some level of bipartisan appeal to regulating social media and it's, kind of, bad effects. I mean, people on the right and people on the left have criticized social media for disinformation, for silencing certain voices. Although they come at it from a different political and philosophical perspective, that does seem to have some level of bipartisan support it writ large. Now, does that translate into creating warning labels for social that remains to be seen."

"I don't know exactly how Congress will react. It's a complicated issue," added State Sen. Barbara Favola (D - Arlington). She is a member of the Joint Commission on Technology and Science, which is studying potential social media legislation. She said the commission met on Monday and mentioned Murthy's letter. "Hopefully, with the Surgeon General raising the issue there'll be some advocacy groups and some research centers that will come forward with information that might be very useful. So, yes, it will definitely be something we're paying attention to."

"This is sort of a large conversation with lots of stakeholders and lots of opinions. But, we are looking for evidence-based strategies that will protect our children, but still allow for some discretion and freedom, because individual rights are part of this conversation as well."

Macrini said while it may be an uphill battle to get legislation passed, he is OK with it.

"Because attention is being given to making sure that children are safe on the internet and that is something that should be prioritized across all levels."

He added that if parents are concerned about their child's social media use, he encourages them to "set open and honest ground rules and be open to having conversations about what safe social media usage looks like."

"Also, if they are able tom have shared conversations with parents of their [children's] friends, so that there is some consistency among those rules that the families are setting," Macrini said. "Because, it's not uncommon for a situation to occur where one set of parents might have a certain set of rules for their children and then that is greatly different from that child's best friend or something like that. So, if parents are showing something of a unified front, that is likely going to contribute to them being able to better encourage their teens into engaging with the internet safely."

Let your voice be heard. Should social media come with a warning label? Tell the CBS 6 Newsroom.

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