Warnings helped deter smokers, experts say. Could they work for social media as well?

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The U.S. surgeon general has called on Congress to require warning labels on social media platforms similar to those mandatory on cigarette boxes.
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Social media use has become so prevalent and potentially damaging among young people that the U.S. surgeon general is calling on Congress to require warning labels on the online platforms, similar to those found on cigarette boxes.

The move by Dr. Vivek Murthy, who argued in an opinion piece published Monday in the New York Times that social media are contributing to a mental health crisis among young people, came as educators and other experts continue to wrestle with the effects the ubiquitous technology is having on teens.

Up to 95% of 13- to 17-year-olds say they use a social media platform, and more than a third say they use it “almost constantly,” according to 2022 data from the Pew Research Center.


“There are definitely teens that are struggling with things that are happening on these sites,” Monica Anderson, Pew’s managing director of internet and technology research, said in an interview Monday.

Four in 10 teens said they were “overwhelmed because of all the drama” they see on social media, she said. About 3 in 10 said the platforms make them feel as if friends are leaving them out.

“Or they feel pressure to post content that will be popular — that will get a lot of comments and likes,” Anderson said. “A lot of times it’s girls that are more likely than boys that are saying this.”

But teens also see value in the platforms, she said. The majority of respondents said social media make them feel more accepted and allow them to show their creativity.

To bolster his argument, Murthy noted that studies of the tobacco industry have shown that warning labels can increase consumer awareness and change behavior.

According to the World Health Organization, health warnings on tobacco packaging, especially those that combine text and pictures, are among “the most cost-effective and powerful ways to increase public awareness of the serious health risks of tobacco use and reduce consumption.”


“Effective health warnings have been proven to motivate users to quit and to reduce the appeal of tobacco to people who are not yet addicted, particularly youth,” the organization said.

Now Murthy would like the same done for social media.

“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,” Murthy said. “A surgeon general’s warning label, which requires congressional action, would regularly remind parents and adolescents that social media has not been proved safe.”

In January, the chief executives of Meta, TikTok, X and other companies appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee to testify amid concern from parents that the tech giants are not doing enough to protect young people. The executives touted existing safety tools on their platforms and the work they’ve done with nonprofits and law enforcement to protect minors.

To comply with federal regulation, social media companies ban kids under 13 from signing up for their platforms — but children have been shown to easily get around the bans, both with and without their parents’ consent.

Other measures social platforms have taken to address concerns about children’s mental health can also be easily circumvented. For instance, TikTok introduced a default 60-minute time limit for users under 18. But once the limit is reached, minors can simply enter a passcode to keep watching.

Murthy believes the effect of social media on young people should be a more pressing concern.


“Why is it that we have failed to respond to the harms of social media when they are no less urgent or widespread than those posed by unsafe cars, planes or food?” he wrote. “These harms are not a failure of willpower and parenting; they are the consequence of unleashing powerful technology without adequate safety measures, transparency or accountability.”

Even with congressional approval, warning labels would likely be challenged in the courts by tech companies.

School administrators are also taking a critical look at technology use among students and cracking down on screen time. Locally, the Los Angeles Unified school board is poised to consider joining a growing number of school districts around the U.S. in banning cellphones during the school day.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.