U.S. Surgeon General Calls for Social Media Warning Labels

United States Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy has renewed his push for Congress to enact social media warning label advising of potential mental health damage to adolescents. Murthy also called on tech companies to be more transparent with internal data on the impact of their products on American youth, requesting independent safety audits and restrictions on features that may be addictive, including autoplay, push notifications and infinite scroll, which he suggests “prey on developing brains and contribute to excessive use.” His federal campaign joins a groundswell of local laws restricting minors’ access to social media.

Murthy’s latest warning comes in the form of an opinion piece in The New York Times that states “the mental health crisis among young people is an emergency — and social media has emerged as an important contributor.”

Reporting on Murthy’s commentary, The New York Times writes that “the push for a warning label sets up a battle between the Biden administration and the tech industry.”

Earlier this year, New York City designated social media a public health crisis with regard to young children, labeling platforms like ByteDance’s TikTok and Meta Platforms’ Instagram “addictive and dangerous.”

In June 2023, Louisiana passed a parental consent requirement for the online accounts of those under 18, and dozens of states have sued Big Tech claiming hazards for children.

Companies that own social media platforms have initiated their own lawsuits or countersued state and local governments, relying primarily on free speech defenses. In the case of warning labels, the defensive argument is against “compelled speech,” NYT explains.

“The surgeon general’s call to action received support from two senators, Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut, and Marsha Blackburn, Republican of Tennessee, the authors of the Kids Online Safety Act, which would require platforms to take a range of steps to protect minors on social media but does not include warning labels,” NYT reports.

Ars Technica says that when it comes to the mental health impact of social media, “the science is divided, showing that kids can also benefit from social media depending on how they use it,” going so far as to suggest “potentially restricting online access due to the proposed label could end up harming some kids” while failing to protect “young adults, whose brains continue developing after the age of 18.”

Murthy’s renewed efforts follow a May 2023 U.S. Surgeon General advisory entitled Social Media and Youth Mental Health.

LA Schools Ban Cellphones, Citing Distractions and Health, Bloomberg, 6/18/24
Gavin Newsom Will Work to Restrict Smartphones in California Schools, HuffPost, 6/18/24

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